• ‚Äč
    • Share to Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Email
    • Print

October 25, 2009

Frequently Asked Questions about Maryland's Mute Swan Policy

Maryland DNR continues its lethal management of birds

The Humane Society of the United States

1. What are mute swans?
2. Where are mute swans found?
3. What is the Maryland Department of National Resource's plan for mute swan management?
4. Are mute swans populations a threat to the Chesapeake Bay?
5. Do mute swans pose a threat to the environment?
6. Why does The HSUS oppose the destruction of mute swan populations?
7. If mute swans are not a threat to the environment, then why is Maryland DNR killing these birds?
8. When did The HSUS become involved with this issue?
9. What is The HSUS doing to protect mute swans, and why have we asked Governor O'Malley to intervene?
10. Is The Humane Society of the United States prepared to work with state DNR to solve any significant problems that may exist?

1. What are mute swans?

Mute swans are a species of white swan (Cygnus olor) with a distinctive red bill. These spectacular birds can reach up to five feet tall and can weigh up to 30 pounds. Pairs of swans tend nests of 5-8 eggs in the spring. The "ugly ducklings" (or cygnets) hatch within 38 days and stay with their parents for about a year. In the wild, pairs tend to mate for life, and individuals may live for nearly 20 years.

2. Where are mute swans found?

Mute swans reside primarily in estuarine environments with smaller numbers on inland lakes and ponds. Mute swans can be found up and down the eastern seaboard and as far west as Montana and Utah.

There is conflicting evidence about whether mute swans are native to the North American continent or were introduced into the United States in the 1800s for aesthetic enjoyment. (Some posit that native populations were supplemented by non-native birds.) Regardless, they are now a naturalized part of the environment in much of the eastern U.S. and provide grace and beauty to the environment.

3. What is the Maryland Department of Natural Resource's plan for mute swan management?

In 2003, despite the vehement objections of its citizens, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) declared war on the Chesapeake Bay's mute swan population, and for the last five years, the agency has slaughtered adults and cygnets in the Chesapeake Bay, claiming it was necessary to stop them from eating submerged aquatic vegetation—a natural food source for swans and hundreds of thousands of other waterfowl that reside, winter and breed in the Bay. As of 2002, there were more than 3,624 mute swans in Maryland, but since 2003, the DNR has killed more than 3,100 swans and the killing continues today. According to eye witnesses, swans are being killed randomly without any regard to even alleged "damage."

4. Are mute swan populations a threat to the Chesapeake Bay?

No. There are only about 250 swans in the Maryland Chesapeake. They are in no way a threat to the health of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. The Chesapeake Bay is a dynamic ecosystem stressed by the effects of pollution, turbidity and the catastrophic effects (contamination with pesticides, fertilizers, sewage, septic algae, etc.) of rampant development of adjoining land. But the Chesapeake Bay has always been host to huge populations of various species of waterfowl including geese and swans and ducks, all of which eat aquatic grasses. From a macro perspective, the relatively recent arrival of a few thousand mute swans is just a minor—and incredibly beautiful—variation in the annual species composition of waterfowl in the bay. 

5. Do mute swans pose a threat to the environment?

No. Mute swans impact on loss of aquatic vegetation in the Bay is miniscule compared to the 500 million pounds of pollutants that factory farms and sewage treatment plants dump into the Bay each year—the major cause of submerged vegetation loss in the bay.

That's 41 million a month, 1.3 million a day, and 56,944 per hour!

In addition to water pollution, turbidity caused by boat propellers and wakes and physical damage to aquatic vegetation from boats are also major factors contributing to its loss from the Bay every year. All of the aforementioned anthropogenic activities have collectively led to the creation of a huge, 25-square-mile "dead zone" in the Bay that blocks sunlight and destroys aquatic vegetation.

The Chesapeake Bay in Maryland contains 32,586 acres (as of 2006) of aquatic vegetation, and therefore, it is preposterous for the DNR to suggest that a few thousand swans (including 200-300 mute swans) have more than an incidental localized effect on aquatic vegetation compared to the 500 million pounds of pollutants that are pumped into the Bay every year.

Furthermore, aquatic vegetation in the Bay is clearly not capable of thriving in a turbid, polluted environment, but it has adapted well to being consumed by aquatic herbivores such as swans. There are 15,000 Tundra Swans and hundreds of thousands of other waterfowl in the Bay, and even if these birds were only in the Bay for a third of the year, they vastly outnumber the mute swans population and consume far more vegetation.

6. Why does The HSUS oppose destruction of mute swan populations?

The DNR's lethal management plan arbitrarily targets a beautiful element of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. The HSUS opposes unjustifiable death and suffering. 

Currently, DNR officials acknowledge that the killing process includes shooting or herding up swans by boat and forcing swans, who are unable to fly because of the summertime loss of flight feathers, into a dense marsh where they are subsequently chased down and captured.  Each swan is then held by one or more people while another person wielding a bolt-cutter like implement crushes and "dislocates" the neck vertebrae/spinal cord.  This abhorrent cruelty seems to be the norm. To make it even worse, swans are killed randomly without any regard to even alleged “damage.”

Moreover, the state has no data to support its claims that mute swans are having a significant negative effect on the overall quality or quantity of vegetation in the Bay with any data. Studies have shown that mute swans do, in fact, eat vegetation, but no study has linked vegetation loss in the Bay with localized mute swan activity.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "It is unlikely that swans (or any other grazers) represent a threat serious enough to decimate the submerged aquatic plants throughout the Bay." The agency also states that mute swans are not "the primary cause, or even a major, reason for the decline in vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay or anywhere else." Even Maryland DNR has stated that "the bay-wide impacts of the collective Maryland mute swan population are negligible." Finally, a federal court declared that there is no scientific evidence that mute swans are causing significant damage to submerged aquatic vegetation in the Bay."

Pollution and increased sediments in the water, along with physical effects of boat propellers and major turbidity cause loss of aquatic grasses—not mute swans or any other natural herbivore. Agricultural, municipal, and industrial run-off, increased development, channelization and dredging all serve to degrade and destroy the delicate balance between water quality and substrate characteristics that foster the perpetuation of healthy aquatic vegetation.

7. If mute swans are not a threat to the environment, then why is Maryland DNR killing these birds?

The answer is simple: Politics demands that the DNR do something about the ongoing environmental disaster in the Bay. During the same period that DNR declared war on mute swans, Governor Ehrlich actually relaxed regulations on farm pollution! It is outrageous that DNR has only six inspectors working to reduce the 500 million pounds of nitrogen and other nutrient pollution that is dumped into the Bay each year. Mute swans don't vote or make campaign contributions. Industries that cause massive erosion and dump tons of pollutants into the Bay every year do and are highly influential. The truth is that the DNR is scapegoating mute swans to cloak the agency’s inability to control and manage the real threats to the Bay. As a result, thousands of mute swans have been killed destructively and unnecessarily.  

8. When did The HSUS become involved with this issue?

When then-Governor Ehrlich’s administration first announced its swan-killing plan in 2003, we filed suit on the grounds that the killing was not only unnecessary but also illegal. Eventually we lost. At the same time, The HSUS offered to help implement a non-lethal management plan that would control any significant damage caused by mute swans while limiting population growth. The DNR declined the offer. 

9. What is The HSUS doing to protect mute swans, and why have we asked Governor O'Malley to intervene?

Following the election of Governor O’Malley, The HSUS contacted the newly appointed head of the DNR, John Griffin, hoping that he would work with us on non-lethal problem solving methods as well as institute a comprehensive study of the most serious problems affecting the Bay’s aquatic resources that would allow the DNR to develop a comprehensive approach toward solving those problems. Unfortunately, the DNR flatly refused to even consider our offer and has continued its program of random annihilation of swans, regardless of citizen complaints.

Given this lack of responsiveness, we are left with no alternative but to call upon Governor O’Malley to declare an immediate moratorium on the killing of Bay Swans and in fact, citizens around the world are petitioning Governor O'Malley to end the brutal killing of mute swans.

10. Is The Humane Society of the United States prepared to work with state DNR to solve any significant problems that may exist?

The HSUS is eager to work with the state of Maryland to resolve any perceived threat mute swans may pose to the Bay and the environment using humane methods. We have significant experience in implementing non-lethal wildlife conflict resolution techniques and have participated actively in non-lethal management of Canada goose populations in urban areas across the nation. We also direct the first nationally recognized commercial operation to implement Humane Wildlife Services to solve wildlife problems in urban areas.

According to the statewide management plan (April 14, 2003), when the state's mute swan population was around 500, negative impacts attributed to swans were insignificant. Today, there are only 200-300 mute swans left in Maryland, so before the state even considers killing additional swans, we are asking that the DNR:

a)  Halt all killing of mute swans unless and until significant swan induced negative impacts are demonstrated that can not be reduced to acceptable levels through non-lethal techniques.

b)  Develop and assiduously implement a comprehensive swan management program, relying on non-lethal techniques.

c)  Demonstrate what, if any, positive impact killing swans has had on vegetation loss and alleged associated negative impacts.

d)  Compare loss of bay grasses caused by swans with losses due to other causes such as pollution, turbidity, and boats; and develop and implement a comprehensive strategy for restoring aquatic vegetation.

The HSUS stands ready to assist with this endeavor.

  • Sign Up
  • Log in using one of your preferred sites
    Login Failure
  • Take Action