January 31, 2012

Mute Swans – the Graceful Aggressor

The curved neck and large, bright white body of the Mute Swan stands out on ponds and marshes around New England. Larger than any other New England waterfowl, the exclamation “out of place” couldn’t be more accurate. Mute Swans are in fact not native to North America; they were imported from Europe in the early 1900’s most likely in conjunction with the rise of industrial wealth and a pension for romantic Victorian gardens. Mute Swans (note that there are native North American swans) were brought over from Britain and Europe and released into gardens and as sedentary bird (migrating only during severe winters) remained on unfrozen water year round. Captive populations managed to “go wild” and establish breeding communities around New England, New York state, and the Great Lakes. Studies in the 1980s found Mute Swan populations climbing at an alarming rate. Because of this and their aggressive behavior towards other nesting waterfowl and their destructive feeding habits (eating the base of aquatic plants thus destroying important aquatic habitat) Mute Swans were labeled an “invasive species”. This “invasive” moniker has not only found Mute Swans in the crosshairs of State Fish and Wildlife agencies but also on the poster of animal rights groups and swan lovers across the country. 

Love for swans in nothing new and the bird holds a prominent place in Greek and Roman mythology. The swan was associated with the god Jupiter who took the bird’s form to seduce Leda creating Helen of Troy. The bird was also associated with Apollo and the Muses often in reference to music, funny for they are virtually silent or “mute” alleged to sing out beautifully in the moments before death giving us the adage “swan song”. In the popular Western psyche swans are a symbol of fidelity – for their habit of life long, monogamy and often associated with matrimony.

As the ponds and lakes around New England begin to break free of ice, watch for these massive birds glowing white on the dark waters. The history of the Mute Swan is complicated and like so much in nature it is not the animal to blame but rather our human hand’s reckless prying.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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