Swan Song

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website describes the Mute Swan as “the elegant bird of Russian ballets and European fairy tales”. Although it is a common occupant of many lakes, ponds and parks throughout the state including several Finger Lakes, the mute swan is not native to North America. The website goes on to point out that the exotic bird’s aggressive behavior and voracious appetite often disturbs local ecosystems, displaces native species, and even poses a hazard to humans—negative attributes that belie its graceful and elegant beauty.

Mute swans are native to Europe and western Asia. They are non-migratory waterfowl that were introduced into New York and New Jersey in the 1870s to grace the garden ponds and waterways of private estates owned by the well-to-do, particularly on Long Island, and city parks and zoos. In the early 1900s, some swans escaped captivity and began to establish wild free-ranging colonies in other parts of the state.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) estimates that about 2,200 wild mute swans currently inhabit New York with the largest populations occurring on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley. But a rapidly increasing population has taken hold in the Lake Ontario region. Today they are commonly found on the waters of Braddock Bay and Irondequoit Bay in Monroe County.

Mute swans spend most of their time on the water, even during the winter. They feed on aquatic vegetation that grows in the shallows, tipping their bodies on end when necessary to reach it. Studies have shown that they eat up to 8 pounds of vegetation per day, consuming some plant growth faster than it can recover. Despite its name, the mute swan does vocalize with several different calls including a short snoring quack and a muffled honk. Agitated or threatened birds will also hiss at intruders, especially while nesting. When in a group, they also growl, whistle, and snort at each other.

But it’s the exotic bird’s “aggressive behavior and voracious appetite [that] often disturbs local ecosystems, displaces native species, and even poses a hazard to humans” part that bothers DEC wildlife managers the most. Considered invasive birds that biologists regard as pests, mute swans were slated for extermination by the agency in 2014. But after a public outcry, Governor Cuomo stepped in and asked the DEC to revise its management plan in order to relocate some of the birds and minimize any killing of mute swans whenever possible. Legislation to that effect is currently pending.

But anyone who has ever canoed or kayaked through the oxbow estuary at the south end of Irondequoit Bay can attest to the mute swan’s aggressiveness. Terrified paddlers have been attacked and even capsized by the irate birds at times. So much for graceful and elegant beauty.


Story and photo by John Adamski