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September 25, 2009

The Education of Genghis Swan

The Humane Society of the United States

By Margaret Baird

When Jessica Almy recently came nose to beak with the renowned mute swan of Eel River in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the wildlife advocate for The HSUS Cape Wildlife Center immediately understood why this large bird had frightened so many unwitting boaters.

Sleek and elegant, haughty and hostile, the swan's puffed-up posture and guarded demeanor was at first breathtaking to behold as he glided beside Almy's canoe, a mere inches away. But when he suddenly propelled himself forward, aggressively kicking the surface and beating his wings, Almy's admiration quickly turned to...well, to fear. Right then and there, she decided it was time to paddle back to shore. This bird would seem to have an anger management problem.

Indeed, he does. This swan has a history of aggression toward boaters. "Genghis Swan," as locals have less than affectionately dubbed the adult male, has even caused a few canoes to capsize. The most infamous of the attacks occurred last summer when the swan assailed a canoe party that included kids, capsizing the boat and its charges, a scene that instantly created panic among parents, children and Plymouth city officials. People were calling for blood, which was why The HSUS Cape Wildlife Center stepped in, but more on that later.

In the swan's world, boats—at least the non-motoring variety—are perceived as threats to his mate and territory. The aggressive behavior of male mute swans during the spring breeding and nesting season is well-documented. In defending the nest, his mate or cygnets (swan chicks), males of this species have been known to boldly chase or even attack other wildlife, people, or watercraft if they feel threatened.

But the Eel River swan appears to be territorial year-round, which translates into an ongoing conflict with human recreational use of the river. And while defensively posturing at boats as they pass down this quiet tributary isn't uncommon, challenging or attacking boats when they mount a retreat is atypical. It's what sets this formidable bird apart.

And that's why last summer Plymouth citizens and the town's Board of Selectmen began calling for the bird to be relocated or even killed. In the ensuing debate, the town, to its credit, opted to take up The HSUS's offer to try non-lethal tactics on the swan, in an attempt to discourage the bird from continued advances on boaters.

By autumn, signs alerting boaters and other visitors about the swan were installed along the river, and staff from The HSUS and The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) began planning a humane conditioning process in which the bird should ultimately learn to avoid boats.

A Simple Plan

After discussing the matter with both state and federal officials, HSUS and MSPCA staffers decided to employ aversive conditioning, a humane training method by which an animal's natural social dominance system is used to teach him to avoid people—and in this case, boats.

The primary tools in the arsenal can include chemical repellents, foggers, water pistols, and firecracker rounds. When used by a trained person acting in a dominant manner, these tactics frighten the animal, and cause him to associate humans with negative experiences. Aversive conditioning has been used with great success on black bears in several areas where human-bear conflicts are a thorny issue, including Yosemite and Great Smoky Mountains national parks.

Animals advocates are hoping to achieve similar success with the Eel River swan. They launched the aversive-conditioning campaign in mid-April with tools that would delight the average teenage boy: water pistols and fogging equipment. Except that, in this case, the pistols and the propane-fueled fogger were filled with methyl anthranilate (MA), a naturally occurring chemical compound, found in Concord grapes, which is used as a food flavoring or as a fragrance additive.

But the compound has also been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for dispersing birds, whether to keep the birds away from crops or from unwanted public areas. The chemical repellent is often used to humanely deter Canada geese from grazing sites, such as playing fields, where the animals are at odds with people. When sprayed on grass, MA renders the grass unpalatable, causing geese to seek food elsewhere.

For several weeks now, Almy and MSPCA staff have piloted a canoe along the Eel River, armed with a special MA formulation designed for dispersal into the air with a hand-held fogger (marketed as Rejex-It® Fog Force). Whenever the swan attacks their canoe, Almy and company either squirt him with the water pistols or cloud him with the fogger—after carefully checking the prevailing winds, of course.

In this situation, the chemical works as an irritant, teaching the swan that attacking boats is an unpleasant experience—one for which he'll receive a memorable but harmless snootful of grape flavoring. The negative reinforcement ceases as soon as the bird retreats.

After several aversive-conditioning sessions, the swan is already beginning to think better of approaching passing boats. "We [Almy and the MSPCA's Stephanie Hagopian] used spray bottles during the first two sessions, then a Super Soaker water gun and the propane-fired fogger last week," says Almy. "We found that the swan responded most visibly to the fogger. When he approached us as we were retreating from the nest, we fogged him with MA, and he dunked his head in the water and turned away."

When they retreated, the swan stayed at a distance and did not chase the canoe when they turned back to shore.

While it seems to be effective, at least during these initial runs, the technique is not an instant panacea, and it will require persistence and time. The goal is for the swan to associate the experience with all boaters, not individuals. "I've come to really admire this bird," says Almy. "He really has been through so much. We're making every effort to help this swan and the Eel River community co-exist."

The Eel River case is just the latest example in The HSUS's ongoing efforts to help communities find and effectively apply non-lethal strategies for solving conflicts between wildlife and people. "This project should serve as a role model for how other communities can deal with wildlife conflicts," says John Hadidian, director of The HSUS Urban Wildlife Program.

What You Can Do

You can help us help the Eel River swan. Please thank the Plymouth Board of Selectmen for deciding to resolve this problem humanely, and let them know that this approach could become a model for other communities. Letters should be directed to the Plymouth Board of Selectmen, Plymouth Town Hall, 11 Lincoln St., Plymouth, MA 02360.

Margaret Baird is Assistant Director in The HSUS's Urban Wildlife Program.

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