New Yorkers Divided on ‘Swanocide’

A pair of mute swans fly over Prospect Lake, Brooklyn. (Flickr Creative Commons/Steven Severinghaus)

A pair of mute swans fly over Prospect Lake, Brooklyn. (Flickr Creative Commons/Steven Severinghaus)

A recent plan introduced by a state environmental agency to get rid of New York’s swan population is causing much controversy.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has presented a draft proposal, which was written in December 2013, to cull the Mute Swan population by 2025, citing that the swans, which have lived in New York for around 200 years, were an invasive species causing harm to surrounding environment.

The mute swans (Cygnus olor) have their names because they are not very vocal, and are noted for their graceful appearance. Mute swans were introduced from Europe in the late 1800s.

Lori Severino, who works at the media relations office for the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), said that the department conducted a study and found the areas where swans lived had a negative effect on other bird species and aquatic plants.

The swans’ feces contain e. coli and pollute the water, and there are 70 to 80 percent less aquatic plants where the swans live because they yank them out, he said.

“DEC has also noted the disappearance of black tern, an endangered wetland bird in New York, from an area after it was colonized by mute swans in the mid 1990s,” Severino said in an email correspondence.

Severnio said that studies done in Conneticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland have shown similar results.

“The most effective way to address those concerns is to work toward a gradual reduction of the wild mute swan population,” he said.

The population decrease would include capturing and killing swans, as well as oiling the eggs as to prevent them from hatching.

“We encourage everyone to read the plan, as well as a report we prepared on mute swans in New York, before rejecting it outright,” Lori Severnio said.

Naturally, not everyone is in favor of this drastic plan. Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn) had recently spoken out not to kill the mute swans in Sheepshead Bay.

Organizations such as the Humane Society and The Regal Swan have expressed similar sentiments, and there has been multiple media responses against the proposal.

One of the biggest voices against the decision — dubbed by some as “Swanocide” — is David Karopkin, the founder of animal rights group Goose Watch NYC.

“What they’re trying to do is scare people, and sway public opinion into their plan or to quell opposition,” Karopkin said, adding that he questioned some of the DEC’s research, especially the section about the aggressive nature of swans.

“Mute swans are known to behave aggressively towards other birds, especially other waterfowl during the nesting and brood-rearing periods, ” the DEC report states. “In many cases, one aggressive swan attacking people can generate numerous calls and letters to DEC.”

Karopkin argued that assertion in the report was laughable.

“A lot of times when people are complaining the swans are ‘aggressive,’ it has to do with the fact that they have nesting, or they’re raising their children,” Karopkin said. “In fact, if you don’t want to get attacked by mute swans, I’ve got a very simple recipe for you – don’t go near them. They don’t come in your house, they’re not in your bathroom, your bedroom, your dining room. They’re in the parks, in the lake.”

He added that he had went to a park several days ago with a sandwich, and when the swans came begging, he simply walked away and the swans did not chase after him.

“How will you justify wiping out an entire species of birds based on a few fringe incidents where people are responsible?” he said. “People have this idea that they can control animals, control wildlife. That’s wrong.”

Goosewatch, which has publically spoken out against the city’s plans to kill other wild birds in the past, have spoken out their opinions in the media, and are planning to work on outreach and hold a few events to raise awareness.

“It’s not just because these birds are pretty,” he said. “They belong here, they’re in our community.”

Paul Curtis, associate professor and wildlife specialist in the department of natural resources at Cornell University, supported the plan and said that swans in private property, such as private ponds and urban parks, will not be eliminated, contrary to public perceptions.

Curtis said that the reason that the city decided to deal with swans 200 years after they were introduced was because they used to be in smaller numbers, mostly in Long Island.

“Around in the 1980s, they began invading western and central New York,” he said. “They expanded to a point where they are posing problems that had not existed decades before.”

Why not relocate the swans, instead of killing and decreasing the population? Curtis said that relocating swans would only move the problem to another location.

Merely preventing the swans to reproduce without killing them is not a good solution either, he said, because a swan usually lives around ten to twelve years, or even longer.

“Swans will still be there and cause an impact decade or more,” he said.

But now, the swanocide debate is in for a new turn; State Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I- Sag Harbor), State Assemblyman Steve Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), and Senator Tony Avella (D-Queens) have co-sponsored a legislation in mid-February that would put a two-year delay on the DEC plan to eliminate the mute swans and would make the DEC demonstrate further proof that the mute swans have caused damage to other species and the water environment.