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Swan song: State targets elegant, invasive birds for eradication

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What does an ugly duckling grow up to become in New York? A dead swan, that’s what — if the state gets its way!

Albany has declared the mute swan an enemy of the state and plans to eradicate the menace by 2025.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s recently released “Mute Swan Management Plan,” labels the bird an invasive species that hurts the environment and calls for the elimination of the per-swan-a non grata’s free-ranging population in the state.

“This plan supports actions by DEC to eliminate free-ranging mute swans from New York by 2025,” the department’s website reads.

The bird, which can weigh up to 25 pounds and is New York’s largest fowl, has become ubiquitous along Southern Brooklyn’s waterfront.

It’s a particularly common sight in Sheepshead Bay, where one unfortunate swan was discovered suffering from lead poisoning on E. 19th Street near Emmons Avenue last summer by local resident Sharon Messer, who happened to be the office manager for then-Assemblyman Steve Cymbrowitz’s. The big-hearted state employee quickly summoned the NYPD, which transported the swan to the Wild Bird Fund in Manhattan, where it was treated before being sent to live out its days at a bird sanctuary in Stamford, Conn.

Other Brooklynites have a soft spot for swans as well, such as Anne-Katrin Titze and her trusty sidekick Ed Bahlman, who rescued three swans in Prospect Park last June that had gotten their beaks snared on carelessly discarded fishing hooks.

But in the eyes of the state, Messer, the Wild Bird Fund, Bahlman, and even Titze — a wildlife rehabilitator licensed by none other than the Department of Environmental Conservation — were all aiding and abetting a foul fowl bent on the destruction of New York’s watery habitats.

“Mute swans can cause a variety of problems, including aggressive behavior towards people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality, and potential hazards to aviation,” reads the department’s website.

The mute swan, which was introduced to the New World from Europe in the late 19th century, may be prized for its aesthetic qualities, but it’s also a vicious brawler, known to harass hapless pedestrians and other birds, which wander too close the swan’s nesting areas.

In addition, the mute swan is terrible glutton, and has been gobbling up underwater plant life at an alarming rate, according to agency, clear cutting submerged vegetation by 95 percent and so depriving native wildlife of food and habitats.

But perhaps most disturbing is what happens to all that vegetation after the swans eat it.

The department cites a 1979 study in Maryland of a similar species — tundra swans — which found they excreted 100 times more fecal coliform bacteria than Canada geese. A follow up study by the department confirmed that water in areas where mute swans feed had elevated concentrations of coliform bacteria, which can trigger beach closings when detected at high levels.

This is not the first time Brooklyn has been touched by anti-avian atrocities — authorities have carried out regular goose massacres in Prospect Park, sparking widespread public outrage and pro-goose civic action.

Public opinion could also become an obstacle to the state’s swan culling initiative. The mute swan’s distinctive white plumage, black facial markings and gracefully curved neck have become synonymous with beauty and romance, so the idea of tax dollars funding a program to hunt down and exterminate the birds may not go over well.

“There are different actions at play and people are trying to do their best to have this turned around,” said veterinarian Rita McMahon, who cared for the sick swan found in Sheepshead Bay. “All the swans that people respond to about how lovely and majestic they are, those are mute swans.”

Indeed, GooseWatch NYC — a group spawned by the infamous 2010 Prospect Park goose massacre — has already started a petition on Change.org entitled “Stop New York State’s Swan Killing Plan.” It has gotten more than 20,000 signatures so far.

The state is taking comments on the plan through Feb. 21. Mail to NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754 or email fwwildlf@gw.dec.state.ny.us with “swan plan” in the subject box.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4514.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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