By ERICA HAMLING
Capital News Service
LANSING — Officials want the public to help kill 13,500 mute swans.
But before hunters and fearful lakefront property owners grab their rifles, defenders who hope to save the birds want more research.
The mute swan is non-native to North America, and it’s increasing in population by 9 to 10 percent each year.
And that’s causing big problems, according to Barbara Avers, a waterfowl and wetlands specialist at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
One question is whether these lake dwellers are being confused with swans that are native to Michigan, says Karen Stamper, a mute swan advocate from Walled Lake.
“It makes no sense that these swans can’t coexist. The mutes have been here so long and people like feeding and watching them,” Stamper said.
“We have more water in our state than most other places in the world.”
Efforts are underway to achieve the state’s long-term goal of getting rid of mute swans by 2030. State employees have killed some, and they’re letting residents know that they can get a permit to do the same.
Michigan has the largest mute swan population in North America, with an estimated 15,500 birds, according to DNR.
However, all the Great Lakes states report problems with an increase in mute swans that displace native swans and other species, destroy wetlands and even intimidate boaters. Wisconsin and Ohio have killed them in recent years, but Michigan has the most ambitious plan yet to kill them.
They were brought to the United States from Europe in the 1800s for their beauty. Some escaped captivity, establishing populations in several states. DNR says Michigan’s population began with one pair in Charlevoix County in 1919.
One of the biggest problems: Their aggression toward humans is increasingly dangerous for people in boats and on shore, Avers said.
“They are considered the most aggressive waterfowl species in the world,” Avers said. “So as we see an increase in the species, we are also seeing an increase in reports about mute swan attacks.”
Although most of the hostile behavior directed at people is bluffing, mute swans can inflict cuts, bruises, sprains and fractures. In at least two cases on the East Coast, attacks resulted in human deaths, according to David Marks, a wildlife disease biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Okemos.
Mute swans keep one of Michigan’s native swan species, the trumpeter swan, from breeding. Both favor similar habitats, and the mute swan begins nesting three weeks earlier than the trumpeter, defending the entire area.
The trumpeter swan is on the state’s threatened species list.
Ayers said, “People often say to us that the swans they see aren’t causing any problems.”
But some problems go below the surface.
That’s because mute swans eat underwater plants. They uproot them, eating far less than what they grab. That destroys the habitat for native species, especially fish.
“If you have a large flock of mute swans feeding on this bed of vegetation, you can imagine that in a pretty short time they can do quite a bit of damage,” Avers said.
There isn’t a hunting season, but the state issues free permits to shoot them. Permits first became available in 2006, but with the current goal of killing thousands of mute swans, the state is re-publicizing their availability.
Permits are also available to destroy nests, a less-efficient method of reducing the population. With a permit, people can remove nests and destroy eggs.
Although such measures slow population growth, they don’t stop adult mute swans from mating.
Stamper and other mute swan supporters dispute the reasons cited as justification for killing 90 percent of the state’s mute swans.
Aggressiveness is just instinct, Stamper said. Humans act the same way when protecting their young.
“I have pictures of a red-winged blackbird chasing a goose that went too close to its nest,” Stamper said in a letter seeking local support from the Wolverine Lake Village Council. “I have a goose going after a swan that was too close to its babies. It’s nature.
“The same thing happens when a hawk or crow takes a baby from a blue jay, starling or wren. It does not matter how large or small the animal, they will go after anything that tries to harm their baby,” she said.
She said she worries that lakefront owners may not distinguish one type of swan from another, so native swans could get killed during an attempt to destroy mute swans.
The most significant visual difference between mute swans and native swan species is that adult mute swans have orange bills and native swans have black bills. Mute swans also have a black knob on the top of their bill and native swans do not.
“If they think there is a swan out there and it shows any kind of aggression or they can’t get their jet ski out, they aren’t going to care if it’s a trumpeter or a mute,” Stamper said. “If it’s in the way, they are going to kill it.”
Mute swan population control began in 1960. In February 2011, Stamper started a petition drive to stop the killing, collecting 2,000 signatures.
The effort has drawn DNR’s attention.
Avers said, “We realize they are a very beautiful species. They are very conspicuous. People come into contact with them a lot and love viewing them.”
However, eliminating the mute swan is for the greater good, she said.
Stamper counters that there’s been insufficient research in Michigan to support the DNR position, but more studies are coming.
The Agriculture Department recently received funding to look into unanswered toxicology questions about the species, according to Marks.
Mute swans that have been killed yield useful information, Marks said.
Researchers will test for toxics and contaminants to see whether mute swan meat is safe to eat.
“They are not typically a species people eat but we do get asked that question,” Marks said. “If you want to manage your mute swans, you can work with the DNR to get a permit.
“People always want to know, ‘Can we eat the meat?’ and nobody here knows how it tastes yet.”
Because mute swans typically feed off the bottom of lakes, which is where pesticides and heavy metals tend to accumulate, Marks said more research is necessary before humans consume the meat.
Some of the mute swans that have been killed are tested for influenza, Newcastle disease and parasites that cause swimmer’s itch to see if the birds play a role in transferring these illnesses.
Marks said some research results will be available to the public by March 2013.
And perhaps mute swan will be on the dinner table by Thanksgiving of next year.
Eric Hamling writes for Great Lakes Echo.