Once considered a valuable commodity in the UK, mute swans are protected by both a Royal charter and the Wildlife and Countryside Act – but it’s a different story in the United States, where the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has declared war on the elegant birds.
Despite their undoubted beauty, mute swans, which were brought to America by European settlers in the 1800s, have a vicious side. They destroy the habitats of native ducks and geese, attack other waterfowl and people, and pose a risk to passenger jets.
Draft proposals have declared the swans a “prohibited invasive species” and outline plans to eliminate virtually all of the 2,200 swans in the state by 2025, the New York Times reported.
The birds would either be shot or captured and gassed, while eggs on nests would be oiled to stop them from hatching. A final plan is expected later this year.
But the proposals, which are widely supported by conservationists and bird-watchers, have caused uproar among animal activists.
“I knew there would be a lot of passionate defenders of swans, but we can’t base our management policies just on the aesthetics of a bird when it has such negative impacts,” said Bryan Swift, the conservation agency’s statewide waterfowl specialist, told the New York Times.
The state plans to appease its critics by allowing private landowners to apply for permits to keep mute swans on their property, provided they prevent the birds form roaming elsewhere.
The state would also seek permission from private property owners and from local and county governments to destroy swans on their land.
Pressure group Goose Watch NYC, which was set up to protest against the annual culling of Canada geese, has vehemently denounced the move.
"It's just outrageous to try to exterminate an entire species that has been living in the state for more than 150 years, almost 200 years," Watch founder David Karopkin told AFP.
"I've yet to find anyone who has been seriously injured by a mute swan," he said.
"When they're being aggressive it's often in relation to them protecting their nest, their babies. I mean people need to have some common sense," he added.
However, other environmental organisations have shown support for the plans. Mike Burger, director of conservation and science for Audubon New York, told the New York Times: “It’s not something we do lightly. We have a general position that says we favour non-lethal control methods when possible.
“But in this case, there is a good basis for reaching a conclusion that in order to reduce the population to desired levels, lethal control is necessary.”
The number of mute swans in New York State has tripled in the past 30 years. Wildlife biologists and conservationists say that the surge in numbers has been partly caused by people feeding the birds. A 1993 plan to reduce them to 500 statewide proved unsuccessful.