Bay Journal

Mute testimony: Invasive swans’ impact on SAV speaks for itself

  • By Kent Mountford on July 01, 2001
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In the Chesapeake region, the mute swan is a ravenous year-round consumer of the Bay’s limited submerged aquatic vegetation. 
Laying six, seven or on rare occasions, 10 eggs, and with few natural predators who will brave an attack by the “cob” or male, the probability of the mute swan population rapidly increasing is high. 
In Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux were born after their mother, Leda, was raped by Zeus, who assumed the form of a
swan for the act. These “Hero Twins” are with us today in the constellation, Gemini. The swan was also sacred to the Greek god, Apollo, and the goddess, Aphrodite.

The mute swan, (Cygnus olor), was introduced to North America from Europe, where it has lived near man for centuries.

While this native of Eurasia is widely considered to be an object of beauty, when it escapes from ornamental captivity, the mute swan is a challenge to wildlife managers all over Eastern North America. In our region, the mute swan is a ravenous year-round consumer of Chesapeake Bay’s limited submerged aquatic vegetation.

Laying six, seven, or on rare occasions, 10 eggs, and with few natural predators who will brave an attack by the “cob,” or male, the probability of the mute swan population rapidly increasing is high.

More than 4,000 swans range the Bay, and where they are concentrated, controversy follows.

A recent conference at Chesapeake College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore provided a forum for those knowledgeable about the species, those with strong opinions — pro and con — and observers interested in these non-native inhabitants.

This month, “Prologue” considers some aspects of their interweaving with human history.

Oxford’s English Dictionary says that in mythology, the swan was sacred to Apollo, one of the Olympian gods. Classical scholar Joel Skidmore says that Zeus would be a more plausible candidate, particularly given the tale of how he assumed the form of a swan to rape Leda, after she had already had relations with her husband that night. As a result, she gave birth to two sons (one for each father): Castor and Pollux, the famous Hero Twins.

In Northern Hemisphere skies, Castor and Pollux are found in the constellation, Gemini, or The Twins, to the right of the Big Dipper. Well to the left of the Big Dipper is Cygnus, the swan.

A poet once said:

“The siluered swan that dying sweetly sings,

Adorns with twelue starres her beautiful wings.”

This couplet also reveals another myth about swans. From the old English words “geswin” which means “melody” and “swinsian” which means “to make melody,” comes the mistaken belief that a dying swan sings its swan song.

In another Greek myth, Cronus castrated his father Uranus, and tossed the genitals into the sea, creating sea foam. Aphrodite arose on a giant scallop, atop the foam and became the goddess of love, desire and beauty. The birds sacred to her are the dove, the sparrow and … the swan.

Swans appear very early in Norse tales and Teutonic mythology, where according to the OED, “Brynhilde and the Valkyries became swan maidens, receiving into their arms the souls of heroes (and) into Vedic Heaven.”

In 1386, Goeffrey Chaucer wrote “… a fat swan loved he best of any roost.” In another source we see : “The mute swan, or that which we call Tame, is found in a wild state in some parts of Russia.”

A selection of medieval chants and poems were discovered decades ago and immortalized by Carl Orff in the moving chorale, “Carmina Burana.” One piece tells the lament of a swan destined for table. The tenor sings:

“Olim lacus coluerum,

Olim pulchar exiteram

dom cignus ego sueram.

Miser, miser! Modo niger aet ustus fortiter.”

Translated:

“Once I lived on lakes,

Once I looked beautiful

When I was a swan.

Misery me! Now black and roasting fiercely.”

Royalty hunted swans, often when the latter was molting and could not fly away. Swans could be decoyed, it was said, by a white shirt thrown over a pile of brush.

On England’s Thames River, swans were coveted and their ownership, and that of each year’s cygnets, has been determined since at least 1570 through a process of capture and marking called “swan-upping.” This obscure term term comes from old English “ypping,” meaning making known or manifest.

The upping is overseen by a swan warden, and conducted jointly by the crown and the companies of swan masters.

A last testament filed in Lincoln Diocese, 1451, discusses the swan as possession: “I will (leave to) my nevew Robert, Constabull, half all my gwhite Swannes.”

The swan, with its pure white plumage, was a symbol of faultlessness or excellence, as opposed to the use of crow or goose as in “old crow” or “silly goose.”

Repeated references appear not to the wild migrating swan but to tame or domestic animals.

The stiff feathers, either directly harvested or taken during molt, when trimmed, made excellent quill pens.

Swans were a poignant resource in war and the hunt. Arrows fletched with their strong feathers, like the wings of the mute swan, sang as they flew to their doomed targets.

When guns supplanted long bows and crossbows, surgeons, extracting a musket ball embedded in human flesh used an instrument called a “swan’s bill,” a type of speculum, to spread the wound, permitting the forceps to grasp the projectile for withdrawal.

In the parlance of hunting, where the terms “buck shot” and “bird shot” have entered vernacular usage, there was a particularly heavy lead shot developed called “swan shot,” “swan post” or “swan drops,” for its ability to fell these heavy birds.

In North America, swans were first depicted in a watercolor drawing by John White in 1585, painted in the Carolinas and later published in Europe. A close look at this picture reveals no prominent knob above the bill. This is the tundra or whistling swan (Olor columbianus), not the mute swan (Cygnus olor) which was not yet found in North America. Tundras reached south of the Chesapeake to the Carolinas, where White saw them.

John Smith, in 1607, and later chroniclers include the swan among an inventory of wildfowl available for hunting. “In winter there are great plenty of swans … But in summer not any.”

Charles Calvert, in 1674, used one of the Bay’s “Swan Points” to set a boundary for Cecil County.

On New Year’s Day 1610, Virginia’s future governor, Thomas Gates, was shipwrecked on the so-called “Devil’s Isles” of Bermuda. He and a friend were walking along one of the bays there when each killed a wild swan.

Swans were also taken by the Native American hunters of Powhatan’s Con federation. Nemattanew, whom the colonists called “Jack the Feather” was an aggressive, flamboyant warrior wh “used to come into the felde all covered (with) feathers and Swans wings fastened unto his shoulders as thowghe he meante to flye.”

Archaeologist Fred Fausz tells of an early Spanish account in which the Powhatans’ god appeared to them as a bird. Although Nemattanew, who by 1621 had ascended to something of a charismatic religious figure, may have sought to emulate this creature, it’s also thought that his feathers may have only been a way to get noticed.

The 1953 edition of John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America,” with its wonderful images painted from 1827-1838, is also very clear about who’s who, showing Cygnus columbianus (C. Americana to Audubon) with the same little ripple that White showed at the juncture of beak and head, and a diagnostic “yellow” spot just ahead of the eye.

Maryland waters, the Virginia Bay and southward to Currituck Sound were prime winter swan habitat, with the swans leaving to go beyond the Arctic Circle in breeding season.

There was another swan in North America, the trumpeter, (C. buccinator). It was a midcontinent species and was almost exterminated by hunters, and does not have the yellow spot ahead of the eye.

By the 1950s, enough mute swans were introduced to have William Vogt’s annotations comment that these indigenous birds were sometimes confused with whistlers (tundras today), but that the latter usually swims with its head erect, while mutes hold a graceful curve.

Both White and Audubon have the neck bent, which whistling swans are quite capable of, to make detailed paintings in which all features fit on the limited size of the folio page.

Male mute swans engage in “busking,” a display of puffery that increases apparent size and shows displeasure to warn off those approaching a nest before attacking. The term “buskers” is also used to describe the puffery of performing street musicians in England.

Sometimes, the cobs don’t stop at busking. A Reuters News Service item dated May 7, 2001 describes an incident at a Kristiansand nature reserve in Norway in which a swan named Oscar, noted for his aggressiveness, flew all the way across a lake to attack an elderly woman. It bit her in the buttocks and dragging her 5 meters into the water, where she was submerged twice before being rescued. She spent the night in hospital.

My own experience with swans began in the late 1960s as young researcher on Barnegat Bay, NJ, just below Swan Point (which got its name in the 19th century). One foggy morning, as I headed out to sample the Bay, a skein of tundra swans, who had been feeding on Barnegat’s then-abundant wigeon grass, crossed just yards ahead of the bow of my skiff. I will never forget the sight.

Since coming to the Chesapeake, I thrill each autumn to the trumpeting of tundra swans as they arrive from boreal America. They used to enter my cove in a stately fleet looking for Bay grasses, as they had for millennia.

In the 1970s, we began regularly exploring Tar Bay on the Eastern Shore, and watched each spring as a mixed colony of terns, oystercatchers and my favorite bird, the black skimmer, began developing on offshore sandbars.

This was as far north as skimmers had ever nested. In my logbooks circa 1987, the terns were always there, circling to keep us clear of their breeding area. Swans had not yet been seen.

Tar Bay was also one of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s success stories because of the strong resurgence of underwater Bay grasses in the late 1980s. Aerial imagery shows these beds expanding rapidly, a regrowth so dramatic, that a display with sliding panels showing the positive changes from year to year was set up by National Geographic as part of a Bay exhibition in Explorers’ Hall.

In 1990, perhaps two decades after the mute swan’s escape from an Eastern Shore Maryland estate, we saw at first three dozen, then about 160, mute swans in Tar Bay. This was, at the outset, a remarkable sight: these big birds, brilliant in the sunlight, their wings singing a symphony as they charged off the water. I videotaped these first encounters as a rare and memorable event.

Even then, though, I estimated that they could consume about 66,000 pounds of Bay grasses during the growing season. Sampling Tar Bay’s bottom that October, we found no evidence of the formerly abundant grasses.

I’ve watched this flock wax and wane for a dozen years (There were about 370 last September.) as they move about, disperse and re-aggregate on the Bay.

Meanwhile, many of the other more sensitive birds, terns especially, have been pushed off. In recent years I’ve seen no more than a dozen pair, and in May 2001, only eight pairs.

We saw just 56 swans, but they are enough to accidentally trample many of the smaller species’ nest sites as they march around on these low beaches.

When the grasses are abundant, the swans’ stools are well-formed and the sandbars used as a loafing area are often strewn with hundreds of swan feces. It’s hard to walk on a sand strip like this and keep one’s feet clean.

In winter, the mute swans eat algae in the absence of SAV, a diet that results in large, oozy, cowpie droppings.

Considering nutrients and fecal coliform contamination, how about these big birds? Any volunteer pooper-scoopers?

When food and space became limited, the mute swans emigrate elsewhere, and many have moved to the Western Shore.

One of my true joys living along my home creek for 27 years has been to swim along this sandbar and reflect on the beauty of this land and water. As the Patuxent River’s nutrient loads were reduced in the late ’90s, the grasses in my cove have greatly increased.

In 1997, the grass beds in my cove were particularly dramatic. This was not wasted on the arriving swans: One day when I went down to swim, there were more than 40 swans waiting for me to leave so they could come in and feed.

There are no grasses this year down to “swan neck depth,” except (ironically) under my tied-up rowboat and beneath the dock.

A few years ago, a mute swan pair decided to nest on the tip of the sandbar and the male made me the target of repeated attacks.

Believe me, a 7-foot wingspan coming at you at 20 miles an hour is frightening! The first time I was really terrified, literally shaking, and my heart pounded like I’d have a heart attack. Swimming, you feel pretty small with just head and hands above the water.

I’m an adult; imagine how my neighbor’s 10-year-old daughter felt when he attacked her kayak?

My friend Frank, a waterman who poles around this cove looking for soft-shell crabs, says the swan came right up on his boat and chased his dog overboard while he tried to fend it off with a piece of PVC pipe.

I have shared my land with a variety of wildlife, including the whistlers in winter before any mute swans presumed to come here.

I shake my head that amid all the mute swan controversy, the U.S. Postal Service chose two mute swans facing with arched necks to grace last years’ Valentines’ Day stamp.

Mute swans are, at the same time, lovely birds. Sixteen were feeding in front of my neighbor’s recently as we had a picnic a few Sundays ago and their grace was unmistakable. These 16, though, have the probability of becoming 40 next year and 80 the next, and potentially even more.

People, meanwhile, are crowding these same shores with serious environmental impacts of their own. Overall, we are certainly more of a problem than the swans, but two separate problems don’t admit to a single solution … or might they?

The final solution may be staring us in the face. The Easton Star Democrat, a 200-year-old Eastern Shore newspaper, reported April 5 that a 6-foot caiman, a Central and South American alligator-like reptile, introduced to and now widespread in Florida, was found by two pre-teen boys on the bank of Kent Island’s Northwest Creek.

Because it was April Fool’s Day, nobody would believe them. So they videotaped the beast. It had reportedly escaped last year from a neighbor who kept it as a pet.

“I think the only reason that it didn’t go after us,” said one of the boys, “is because it is cold and they aren’t used to the weather.”

“There was a bunch of swans out there and now there is only one and they blamed it on the alligator,” said 9-year-old Joey Adams.

Now, with global warming, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine caimans prospering all over the Chesapeake.

And enough of them could provide an interesting population control for humans as well as mute swans. End of problem, and thank you for your attention!

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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