Maryland’s Mute Swan Problem: Under Control. Are we?
The white mute swan, gliding across the water, gracefully extending its long neck toward its partner – it’s an iconic waterscape image. At the same time, it’s an invasive species and has been a big problem in Maryland.
The state DNR and environmental groups spent years trying to deal with the mute swan in Maryland’s waters, and the state undertook a serious effort to eradicate them in 2009. I spoke yesterday with Johnathan McKnight, of the State DNR, for an update on how that project went.
It seems that mute swans first made their way into Maryland in 1962, when an estate owner released 5 mute swans onto their property. Only two of them were female. Each female has about 5 chicks a year, and the population doubled about every four years.
But after 1987, their population exploded.
That was the year that a federal ban on lead in waterfowl hunting passed. The mute swan only eats vegetation, and they had been ingesting sufficient lead shot along with those underwater grasses to keep the population down. Once that ban went into place, the mute swan population started doubling each year. By 1999, there were 3900 of them.
Wait….what’s the problem with mute swans, anyway? Doesn’t everyone love swans here, where every third sign shouts “swan cove” or “swan point”?
Well, ask people who live on the water about mute swans and you’ll hear stories how you couldn’t take a kayak or canoe into the creek without being attacked (the birds protect their nests and young).
And you’ll also hear that people do love the tundra swans – they’re the ones with the black beaks. Tundra swans migrate here every winter by the thousands. They spend much of the winter here, and head back north usually in February or March.
Of course, it’s easy to love swans when you’re not sharing the creeks with them during boating and fishing season. In winter, people only experience the tundra swans by looking at them through a window. And perhaps because they’re not nesting when they winter here, you don’t hear about attacks.
But the main problem with the invasive mute swans is that they’re NOT migratory - they’re here year round, and feed on underwater grasses. LOTS of underwater grasses. Whole coves, creeks and tributaries’ grass populations are eaten up by mute swans, at a rate that the grass populations can’t sustain themselves.
These underwater grasses are critical to support other life in the Bay and its tributaries. With nutrients from people and agriculture, wastewater, septic and runoff clouding the water, the underwater grass beds have been effectively smothered in recent years. That impacts every single species of life in the Bay. And the mute swans continued to rip the grasses out by the roots, day in and day out, in increasing numbers.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to manage swan populations than it is to manage people populations. Ask any of the county officials in the five states that make up the Chesapeake Bay watershed how they are dealing with reducing their Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) as required by the Clean Water Act. It’s tough to regulate development, agriculture, storm and wastewater, septics across the five states that drain into the Chesapeake.
With the Bay in such a fragile state, it made sense to take efforts to manage the mute swan population. (Yes, shoot them and kill the eggs too).
Net result? Problem under control. McKnight reports that the statewide population now is fewer than 100 birds, and fewer than 50 nests. The state is still actively monitoring the situation with their January waterfowl survey, done by small planes, in which birds are literally counted one by one. The state also counts nests in the spring.
“A couple of escaped pets caused a big problem here” said McKnight.
Everybody loves the Chesapeake Bay. And it’s really threatened now, more than ever. But on some level, you have to wonder about human beings – the most invasive species of all – naming other species as “invasive”, and “managing” them. I’d feel better about it if we do a better job of “managing” ourselves. And honestly, that means me.
Am I reducing my footprint? Am I using resources wisely? My contributions to the Bay’s problems are not insignificant. How many times a week do I need to drive the 34 mile round trip into Easton, anyway?
Might this shift my thinking the next time I see a “Swan Cove” sign? Maybe I’ll stop for one moment, think about the mute swans, and “manage” my own activities in that moment, on that day. That’s really the only option we have left – to take the thousand tiny actions individually, that can collectively, make the difference. And to stay on top of our elected officials to let them know that we will support their work to save the Bay, as expensive and difficult as it is.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says now is the time – that we have the blueprint, and can take actions now to make the difference. Learn more here.
Maryland’s mute swan problem may be under control….but are we?