Swans

 

(This column was first published in the April 11, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)

 

Our three swans are among the most attractive of all waterfowl.

 

On Palm Sunday over a hundred tundra swans swam about the Cayuga Pool of the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Occasionally a small group beat their wings furiously and paddled rapidly along the water surface until they slowly rose to circle the marshes, maintaining formation as they did so.

 

In flight their soft whoo-ing cries in no way relate to their former name -- whistling swans. Nevertheless, seeing these lovely white birds in flight, mournfully crying as they pass overhead, is a moving experience.

 

For a few weeks each spring and less regularly in fall these lovely birds stop by at Iroquois and attract hundreds of observers to the Cayuga Pool. (The pool overlook is on Route 77 between the villages of Alabama and West Alabama.)

 

Tundra swans may also be observed at this time of year along the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Varying numbers stay through the winter in these open waters. This year a record 294 were recorded there on the January waterfowl count of the Buffalo Ornithological Society.

 

Soon, however, these swans will depart for their breeding grounds almost 2000 miles away along the farthest northern shores of the North American continent.

 

The other two species are more problematic.

 

The mute swan, an European species, has often been introduced to American parks and private property. As an adult, it is easily identified by its orange bill topped by an overlapping black knob at its base. For several years in the early 1990s one resided at Tifft Nature Preserve until it was killed flying into a power line.

 

The mute swan is an aggressive and intolerant species that has created serious difficulties around Chesapeake Bay where they now number in the thousands. Human injuries have been reported but their disruption of other wildlife is more important to conservationists. They have been observed killing many marsh-dwelling birds including ducks and even geese and they have also driven away rare nesting terns and skimmers.

 

Mute swans are also notorious gluttons and the Maryland population currently consumes an estimated nine million pounds of aquatic vegetation annually, in the process destroying habitat for crabs and fish as well as birds.

 

The third swan now beginning to be recorded here is the largest of the three, the trumpeter swan. I consider it the most beautiful bird in North America. Once completely gone from the United States and rare even in Canada, it has now been reintroduced to our northwestern states where it is doing quite well. I was awed a few years ago when I observed three of these swans flying along the Yellowstone River in Montana.

 

Although ornithologists agree that this species never bred east of Michigan, a "restoration" program was begun a few years ago in Ontario and another was attempted near the Iroquois refuge. The latter included an attempt to lead the swans to migrate by showing the way with light aircraft. The experiment failed with some birds severely injured in the process and the remaining swans were relocated to Maryland.

 

Although the Ontario birds are non-migratory and, like mute swans, usually tamely respond to hand-outs, they have begun to wander in fall and winter. A few have made it to New York and four pairs have already been confirmed nesting in eastern parts of our state.

 

Many people will be glad to see these majestic birds and birders will be delighted to add this species to their local lists but, as is the case with the smaller mute swan, they are voracious eaters and their presence will further endanger our eastern marshlands that are far less extensive than those of the west.*

 

I hope that the future history of mute and trumpeter swans will not replicate that of the Canada goose, still uncommon and welcome migrants, but with those migrants now far outnumbered by resident geese that are undesirable pests of golf courses and parklands.-- Gerry Rising


* For much more on Bill Whan's and my concerns about trumpeter swans, visit our swan file on this same website.