Published June 20, 2013, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Link here.
Sandra Fite knew the Harris Brake Lake swans she’d come to see as pets were in trouble when she saw the cages.
The 70-year-old retiree ran outside her home Wednesday morning to see five Arkansas Game and Fish Commission boats surrounding a male mute swan that Fite and her Perryville neighbors have been feeding for five years. The boaters captured the male swan, along with four 3-month-old cygnet hybrids – the young offspring of the mute swan and a trumpet swan.
Karen Rowe, the commission’s bird preservation program leader, said the cygnets were killed by cervical dislocation, or the snapping of the neck – a quick and painless method of euthanization.
The owner of the male swan has five days to produce paperwork proving that he bought the bird and can keep it in an enclosed space – otherwise, that swan will be euthanized, too. If the owner purchased the swan illegally, he could be subject to a fine or even a felony charge.
Residents are upset about the killing of the young swans, but Game and Fish officials said they made a tough choice to protect the native trumpet swan species and Arkansas’ wetlands from the spread of the mute swan, an invasive, nonnative species.
Mute swans, native to Europe, are characterized by orange bills and S-shaped necks. They generally have more aggressive personalities than America’s black-billed, straight-necked trumpeter swans and have attacked humans and pets, Rowe said.
“We did what was biologically right,” she said. “We look at what we see in front of us and we see the beauty, but we don’t see what’s down the road. Doing what’s right isn’t always easy.”
Wildlife conservation groups have long worked to bolster America’s trumpeter swan population in the Mississippi River Valley. About 10,000 trumpeter swans reside in the area today, and conservationists have released 70 of them in Arkansas in an attempt to teach them to migrate north.
But conservationists worry that the mute swan is a threat to the growth of the trumpeter species. A mute swan consumes an average of 8 pounds of vegetation daily and destroys 20 pounds more with its feeding method of ripping plants from the root, Rowe said.
Game and Fish Regional Wildlife Supervisor Randall Billington said the species’ territorial nature also scares away other animals.
“They’re the pit bull of the waterfowl world,” Billington said. “We don’t need them here in Arkansas.”
Michigan hosts about 15,000 mute swans, and they’re listed as nuisance species in states including Oregon and Washington. Rowe said Michigan Game and Fish workers have resorted to shooting the birds with shotguns to control the population.
But lake-area residents in Perryville said the male swan they’d come to know after five years wasn’t particularly aggressive. While it bristled when other waterfowl approached the cygnets and was territorial of its nesting area, Mallards living in the lake simply moved to the other side, Fite said.
Fite and her husband, as well as at least nine other residents, began feeding the male mute swan when an unknown person released it and several others on the lake. Fite would give the swan the same dry food she fed her dachshund. The swan would often walk around to the front of her home to catch her attention in the window by ruffling its feathers and even slept in her yard.
“He was real affectionatelike. Of course, I never tried to pet him,” she said with a laugh. “He’s a wild animal.”
When a female trumpeter swan found a home in the lake and the two mated, Rowe got calls from area residents who noticed the female’s green collar – a sort of visual tracking device – and let her know about the cygnets.
Fite said she tried to persuade the Game and Fish workers to leave the swans alone, but it was no use.
“Everybody was real attached to them,” she said. “It’s just not right. They weren’t hurting anyone.”
Euthanizing the swans was a tough decision for Rowe, who says she is an animal lover.
“I can promise you they did not suffer,” she said. “But we had to make a decision – [should we] do what’s best for those five swans, or do we want what’s best for the 10,000 swans in the Mississippi River Valley? We chose to protect the other 10,000 swans.”
The cygnets’ carcasses will be sent to a testing facility, Rowe said. As for why the commission killed the hybrid cygnets, John Cornely of the Trumpeter Swan Society said hybrids are legally treated as mute swans and therefore aren’t protected by federal law.
“Interbreeding is usually not a good thing,” he said. “A lot of it is just an unknown. We don’t know what would happen or even whether they’d survive and what kind of impact they’d have.”
Fite said she feels heartbroken over the loss of the swans.
“I just wish we hadn’t fed them in the first place,” she said. “If we’d known it would end like this, we would never have done it.”
Arkansas, Pages 9 on 06/20/2013