Swan song out of tune

January 2, 2019

(Editor’s note: This is the first story in a series. Future stories will look at another species of swan, once native to Indiana but now endangered; and how a simple question posted on social media led to the swan issue becoming contentious and downright ugly at times.)

La PORTE – There’s no denying that the mute swan is a beautiful, majestic bird. There’s also no doubt among wildlife officials that the invasive birds do not belong in Indiana, or anywhere else in the United States, because of their destructive effect on habitat and native wildlife.

Sue Culberson believes the beauty of the birds is the reason for the recent controversy over the culling of the birds on the La Porte lakes.

“From what I’ve found the mute swan is an invasive species of swan and detrimental to the native wildlife here,” the La Porte resident said. “The reason people are in an uproar is because the birds are pretty. We also have trumpeter swans that are not invasive. We need to conserve our natural ecosystem and cull invasive species while preserving our natural habitats.”

Marty Benson of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources agrees.

“Mute swans, while attractive, are not native to Indiana,” he said, “They are native to Europe and Asia, and were released in the U.S. as an ornamental species. Native plants and animals are not adapted to mute swans.”

The birds leave a mark on the natural ecosystem, he said.

“Mute swans require eight pounds of aquatic plants for food every day, food that normally would be available for native waterfowl such as migrating ducks and other wildlife,” Benson said. “They destroy both underwater plants and plants at the water’s edge, so they affect both food and cover for native species. They tend to select higher-quality native plants, leaving aquatic weeds to expand in the area.”

DNR urban wildlife biologist Jessica Merkling understands the controversy, but agrees the birds are not a good fit here.

“This is a very large, beautiful bird, so I understand that people will get upset that they are being killed. But it is very invasive and not good for the environment. They will chase off ducks and other birds from their nests.”

Because of their detrimental effects on the ecosystem, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and dozens of other states want to reduce the population of mute swans though various culling programs. In Indiana, that includes hunting the birds.

“A private landowner in La Porte applied for a nuisance wildlife permit to remove mute swans,” Merkling said.

“The DNR issued the permit to the La Porte Area Lake Association to take mute swans on Sept. 28,” Benson said, “to reduce the number of mute swans on the lake ...The permit allows the mute swans to be taken by air rifles and firearms ... where safe and legal to do so, and with ammunition appropriate for the species. Firearms have to be discharged in accordance with local regulations/ordinances. DNR Law Enforcement is aware of the La Porte permit and says it is being used lawfully.”

But despite the legality, the issue became a hot topic on social media when photos of the hunter, and some dead swans, were posted on Facebook. Some of the posts got ugly, with threats made against the hunter by those opposed to the killing of swans, and plenty of negative feedback against those opposed to the cull.

There’s even a Save the Swans La Porte page on Facebook. According to the site, it’s “A page dedicated to protecting La Porte, Indiana’s swan population. A page dedicated to harmonizing the needs of humans with the needs of swans.” The page had over 375 followers as of Sunday.

Maggie Loomis of La Porte said, “There were several more options open to the Lake Association and DNR that were not explored, nor as I know were the people of La Porte allowed to comment on. What was done to these animals was wrong on so many levels. It is like the people in charge have deemed themselves judge jury and executioner.”

But in Indiana, and surrounding states, the options are severely limited.

Indiana allows hunting of swans, and also trapping. However, anyone who traps a swan has little choice but to euthanize them. It is illegal to reintroduce them into the wild in Indiana, or any other state. The birds, if kept alive, must be rendered flightless and kept in an enclosure from which they cannot escape.

In Michigan, while it is not legal to hunt the birds, they can be trapped. However, trapped birds must be euthanized. It is illegal to keep them or release them back into the wild.

“Federal protection for the mute swan was removed by Migratory Bird Treaty Reform Act in 2004 because the mute swan is not native,” Benson said. “Mute swans are still regulated, so a permit from the DNR is required to legally take one on public waters. Live birds that are possessed must be pinioned (made flightless) and kept in an enclosure that prevents escape into the wild.”

While the hunter who has been shooting birds in La Porte for the last couple months would not comment for this story, Jay Anglin said he had such a permit in the past.

“I had a swan permit years ago,” said the La Porte resident, an avid hunter who holds a degree in wildlife biology. “I killed 17 on my permit before the DNR pulled them. I also have a biology degree and have waterfowl hunted for 35 years.

“My nuisance animal permit was through the Indiana DNR. ... Mute swans had reached critical mass in Northern Indiana and many lakes, in particular the ones east of here, were holding dozens. The population of resident ducks and other marsh and wetlands birds had been decimated. Canada geese are big enough to defend themselves so they tend to not be impacted as much.

“The same issues were prevalent in La Porte County at private and state marshes. I harvested 17 birds on my permit in La Porte and Kosciusko counties over the course of one late-winter/spring. I hunted the birds like regular waterfowl using decoys ... though the permit allowed the use of any type of weapon.

“Unlike waterfowl hunting in the traditional sense, which is highly regulated by state and federal laws, mutes being an invasive, non-native nuisance species ... there were no rules other than what was done with the animal after it was harvested and reporting the kill. Also, the permits defined where the holder could pursue the mutes.”

Anglin has no doubt that the mute swans are a nuisance.

“Absolutely. Most people do not have the exposure to the inner-working of wetlands. I do have a biology degree so maybe I am more cognizant than average but in all honesty my occupation as a hunting and fishing guide, and avid waterfowl hunter gives me a better vantage point ...

“Any species that nests near mutes is likely going to be either hazed away or killed. I have witnessed mutes destroy nests of several duck species as well as other birds that nest on or near water. They are extremely territorial and not particularly good for the ecology of water and marshes where they exist.”

The birds can be aggressive, even toward people and pets.

“Mute swans are known to attack other animals, including ducks, geese and other birds. During the nesting season, they will also come out of the water to drive off people or pets that enter their territory,” Benson said.

“They can be aggressive toward people, usually when trying to protect their nests,” Merkling said. “Accidents can occur when people try to run from the birds or get too close – they can attack.”

“These are big birds,” Anglin said. “One of the ones I shot was over 32 pounds. I grew up on a large lake and I recall mutes being very aggressive with people. There are accounts in Indiana of at least one person dying from a mute attack. It was a older gentleman that was fishing and when he got to close to a mute nest the male attacked him in his boat and he died of a heart attack. I know of another case when a woman was attacked on a wave runner.”

And in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 2012, a man was killed when he was attacked by a swan while kayaking, and was unable to make it to shore because the bird kept attacking until he drowned.

But Nancy Addie, a local photographer who has shot hundreds of photos of the big birds, disagrees,

In a Facebook post, she wrote: “The swans I’ve encountered are not aggressive or mean. They let me come right up to them for pics. I also know when they don’t want me to get any closer, so I back off.

“I was wondering why I haven’t seen as many swans the last couple of months. Supposedly, “mute swans” are considered non-native and invasive, thus open to hunters. This makes me very angry and sad...”

Anglin said years ago, the state stopped issuing permit because of an uproar over the killing of birds, but the circumstances were different in that case.

“When I received my permit I asked the DNR how they were vetting applicants. I warned them that the wrong individuals would likely cause a lot of problems with the public if they were given a permit. This in fact happened on Memorial Day weekend on Lake Webster in Kosciusko County when a permit holder drove around the lake shooting swans in front of a lake full of people celebrating the holiday.

“He shot many birds and let them lay. As I recall somebody that witnessed this contacted Gov. (Mitch) Daniels directly and from that point forward the DNR rescinded the permits.”

Anglin does not understand the outcry over the culling of swans.

“While mutes are a very majestic and intriguing species to watch they are unfortunately extremely detrimental to the natural order of our lakes, streams and marshes.”

When he was hunting them, he said, “Nobody was upset as far as I knew but I was very cautious about where I hunted them and rarely exposed lake residents or the general public to this in an effort to mitigate the issue.”

Culberson said if the swans were not such beautiful birds, the whole controversy would be moot.

“Check into other areas where invasive species have taken hold – Florida with iguanas and released snakes, and southern states where wild hogs were introduced, those are two examples – but the animals aren’t pretty or cute so no one jumped to their defense. And they are destroying the ecosystems.”

Protecting the lakes

The following statement was issued by the La Porte Area Lakes Association about the culling of mute swans:

“The La Porte Area Lake Association has always had a mission statement regarding protecting the immediate environment on and around our local lakes. Mute swans are an Invasive, non-native species. While visually appealing to some, they have been proven to be environmentally harmful. It is on the same list as feral hogs, Burmese pythons, Asian carp, zebra mussels, gobies, lamprey eels, stink bugs and lion fish.

Some might feel these birds are beautiful because of a childhood cartoon, but the reality is that these birds are destructive and do not belong in our ecosystem. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife have deemed this particular species invasive and a threat to native species – from mallards to trumpeter swans to countless plant species native to this area. The unfortunate reality of these swans’ reproduction rate can be likened to the theory of compounding interest. Eighteen birds will quickly become a few hundred. If given the choice to eliminate a cancer at Stage 1 or wait until Stage 4, the answer and course of action become very obvious.

The facts are these birds produce 8 pounds of e-coli laced fecal matter a day, are known to attack pets and people, and destroy native habitats of countless other species. Mute swans have literally killed a person in Illinois [2012 in Des Plaines]. If the Mute Swan looked like a Burmese python and had killed an individual, society would have eliminated them long ago. Our native species deserve the chance to thrive without competing against nonnative, invasive species.

Membership applications can be found at laportearealakeassociation.com/memberships

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