Public outcry from legislators, animal rights groups and residents has forced the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to revise its plan to cull over 2,200 mute swans in New York state.
With their long necks and white plumage, mute swans are an icon of romance, adorning valentines, wedding cakes and inspiring classic ballets such as Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Fonkine's Dying Swan.
They are also the largest non-native waterfowl in New York state and DEC conservationists worry that their feeding habits and aggressive behavior are harming wetlands and native waterfowl.
Wealthy Americans began importing mute swans from Europe in the 19th century as ornaments for ponds and lakes on large estates. By 1910 New York state had a large population of free-range swans descended from those birds.
The DEC considers mute swans an invasive species, spokeswoman Lori Severino toldCapital New York. They eat the same aquatic plants and insects as native species. In some habitats mute swans have forced out the endangered black tern.
Swan droppings also contain E. coli bacteria, which can harm shellfish beds, Severino said.
The DEC's original draft plan called for wild swans on public land to be shot, euthenized or captured and "turned over to persons with suitable facilities" for their care.
Swan meat would be donated to local food banks.
The draft plan was released for public comment in December 2013. By February 21, DEC had received over 1,500 comments, 16,000 protest letters and 30,000 signatures on multiple petitions.
Protesters say mute swans cause less wetland damage than fertilizer runoff and other human activities.
Speaking to Wired magazine, Brian Shapiro, New York state director of the Humane Society of the United States, called the science behind the DEC proposal "incomplete." He pointed to a 1979 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showing that mute swans had not seriously harmed seagrass beds in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay.
Animal rights groups Friends of Animals and Goosewatch NYC denounced the plan.
Friends of Animals called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to designate March 10-16, 2014 "Swan Appreciation Week."
Swan Control a Longstanding Controversy
This is not the first time a plan to curb New York's mute swan population has stirred controversy.
In 1987 the New York Times reported state biologist Gregory Chasko had published a report that recommended killing swans and shaking their eggs to kill swan embryos.
DEC officials received ''a tremendous outpouring of letters in opposition'' to Chasko's report.
Animal rights groups including the New Haven-based Animal Rights Front and Friends of Animals objected to any swan control program ''on moral and biological grounds."
In 1993 the Division of Fish and Wildlife and Division of Marine Resources (now known as the DFWMR) adopted a swan management policy permitting removal of swans from DFWMR-administered lands and prohibiting the release of captive swans into the wild.
Despite the program, the statewide swan population grew from less that 700 in the 1970s to over 2,500 by the year 2000, according to the DEC.
Brooklyn Assembly Member Steven Cymbrowitz was the first elected official to speak out against the DEC's plan.
“There are other ways of dealing with the swan population that are non-lethal,” Cymbrowitz told SheepsHead Bites.com on February 5.
He pledged to work with Suffolk County Assemblyman Robert Sweeney to help the DEC explore other ways to manage the swan population.
On February 10 Queens State Senator Tony Avella introduced a bill placing a two year moratorium on the DEC plan.
After weeks of public pressure, the DEC announced it would meet with "key stakeholders" and revise the plan.
“The draft plan for management for mute swans received significant public interest and DEC received many thoughtful and substantive comments,” Commissioner Martens said in a February 28 press release. “DEC is listening to these comments and concerns and will revise the draft plan and provide an opportunity for the public to comment on the revised plan this spring.”
For now, New Yorkers are celebrating what Sheepshead Bites.com called a "stay of execution" for the birds they call "neighbors" and "part of the landscape."
"You really haven't picnicked in Prospect Park," wrote New York City resident Lauren Evans,"until you've fled in terror from a pissed mute swan who has its sights set on your sandwich."