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Mute swans are pretty, but they have evil side.

Byline: Mark Blazis

COLUMN: Outdoors

Mute swans gracing local waters are both beauty and beast, elegant and harmful. They seduce our aesthetic prejudice. Beauty enables these charmers, often with our enthusiastic support, to thrive and sometimes damage both the environment and their native competition. Signs on the Quinsigamond and Blackstone Rivers, which I passed driving through Grafton and Millbury recently, had beautiful swans for their emblem. Though the signs are attractive, placing a swan on them is inappropriate and highlights a lack of understanding of what mute swans mean to our local waters.

Undeniably beautiful, they're also out-of-place, unnatural, invasive aliens from Eurasia. They're appropriate for a zoo or park, but not in wild America. They're as inappropriate in our wetlands as is a pretty patch of purple loosestrife, wild bamboo, bitter sweet, the long-horned beetle, or a European starling.

How are they offensive? Let me count the ways. Big and aggressive, they can drown a dog or drive away smaller, more timid waterfowl that might try to share their territories. They interfere with the breeding and survival of native American species.

Swans can destroy delicate underwater plants which they typically pull out and consume voraciously to sustain their 30-pound bodies. In the process, they destroy habitat for small fish, crabs, and other worthwhile but less attractive and little-known aquatic life. We overlook and even knowingly condone their impact because they're pretty. And that's where public relations, education, politics and management come into conflict.

Unfortunately, not all animals are created equal, and that disparity is the basis for serious management problems. Those who really care about nature need to establish their values by criteria that are not solely aesthetic. Some animals that are not pretty desperately need our full support. As more mute swans take residence and dominate our region's waters, we may need to face this growing problem appropriately. We need to protect our wildlife with reason, not unenlightened emotion or prejudice.

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources faced the same problem and acted decisively. From five swans, first imported as estate ornaments back in 1962, the state's population exploded to 4,000 by the year 2000. The havoc these long-necked, statuesque beauties created was no longer tolerable.

The Department of Natural Resources has succeeded in bringing the population down to about 400, but most biologists agree they need to totally reduce the population; otherwise, it will quickly rebound.

Sympathetic, well-meaning but ill-informed swan supporters need to understand sound wildlife biology and recognize the overriding urgency of protecting native species and the ecosystem from species that are unnatural to our waters.

House sparrows are another example of an invasive alien species out of control in its destructiveness. (Please don't confuse this destructive alien with our several species of native American sparrows, which need our full support). What the much less pretty, alien house sparrows do to our native bluebirds is appalling and unacceptable.

Auburn's J.J. White confronts them daily as he currently runs one of the most successful bluebird nest box and restoration programs in the state. He devotes his life to placing boxes strategically in breeding locations by early March each year. He monitors every nest, banding fledglings just before they successfully leave. But many of them don't leave the nest. House sparrows kill many of them, usurping the nest box to build their own nests.

Just this year alone at the Auburn Sportsman's Club, White found numerous baby bluebirds dead in their nest boxes, their eyes and skulls pecked out by the house sparrows. At other nest boxes, he's seen them aggressively drive off the bluebird parents, then build their own nests on top of the dead nestlings.

Occasionally our native tree swallows migrate back here and use White's nest boxes, too. Swallows are beautiful, natural residents, devouring great quantities of insect pests. The sparrows drive them out and kill their young, as well. To save our native bluebird and tree swallow populations, we have no alternative to killing the invasive house sparrows. To do otherwise would be heartless.

The means of eliminating swans is determined by season. In spring, eggs can be covered with oil to prevent hatching. At other times of year, more lethal means must be used, depending on the education and politics of a community. In matters of protecting wildlife, attractive or unattractive, we need to support wildlife professionals, not with prejudice, but with understanding and open-minded wisdom, sympathy and logic. Native wildlife deserves both our passion and our reason.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 17, 2009
Words:747
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