The recent killing of a male swan on Warwick Pond by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is prompting Warwick residents and animal rights activists to protest what the DEM maintains is a crucial method of population control.
The DEM considers mute swans to be a non-native, invasive species, brought over from Europe more than 100 years ago. Due to their aggressive behavior and environmental impact, the DEM employs several methods to keep the population at bay, including killing swans reported to be especially aggressive.
According to DEM Principal Wildlife Biologist Paul Ricard, after a several-year decline in the swan population, the number of these birds in Rhode Island is on the rise once again, making the euthanasia of aggressive swans especially important.
Warwick resident Connie Mero questioned both the humanity and the logic of these actions after her husband witnessed the swan recently killed on Warwick Pond. Mero said it seems irrational that the swans alive today that were born here even if their parents were not are still considered non-native species.
“If it was a person born to a non-native parent, we would still consider them a citizen,” Mero said. “My neighbors, my husband and I, we are all very upset.”
In this particular case, a property owner reported a male swan attacking her family and friends in the water and going after small dogs, according to Gail Mastrati, a spokesperson for DEM. Mastrati added that the swan also exhibited aggressive behavior toward DEM staff sent to capture him.
“If we follow up on a report and see that a swan is being aggressive, we’re obligated to remove the birds to protect the public’s well being,” said Ricard.
Although not at the pond during the incident, Mero described the situation differently.
“We’ve never had problems with a swan going after our dogs, ever,” she said.
Lesley Doonan, chapter coordinator of Volunteer Services for Animals, agreed that swans are generally not aggressive unless provoked.
“Swans are peaceful, beautiful creatures,” she said. “If something did happen with a dog and a swan, it’s probably the dog’s fault for harassing the swan, especially if the swan is trying to protect its babies.”
This particular male swan was with a female swan and four cygnets, according to Mero.
“They [swans] don’t go looking for trouble, trouble finds them,” said Doonan, adding that a swan’s strongest instinct is to protect its young. “How heartless can people be to not see that it’s just trying to protect itself and its family?”
Doonan said she wondered how the female swan and her four cygnets would survive without their male protector, explaining that swans mate for life.
A report on this species of mute swan in Rhode Island by wildlife biologist Charles Allin paints a different picture.
“Mute swans … have become a symbol for beauty, grace, tranquility, love and a host of other anthropomorphic expressions,” according to Allin’s report. “Unfortunately, the swans’ personality does not match its image.”
The report describes swans as aggressive and territorial, with documented incidents of swans attacking other waterfowl, children and dogs.
Mastrati also noted that only about 15 swans are killed based on these reports per year, and that the swan population can reach up to 400 birds at any given time in particularly concentrated areas, such as Pawtuxet Cove.
This concentration is normal, especially at times of molting, according to Ricard, who explained that since during the molting period swans are unable to fly and more vulnerable to attack, they often gather together as a survival strategy.
While gathering together may be strategic for the swans, the large numbers of them can wreak havoc on their ecosystem, according to Ricard. The top two adverse effects of a large number of swans in one area are water pollution from the birds’ fecal matter and a decrease in submerged aquatic vegetation, which is destroyed through the birds’ feeding behavior.
In addition to responding to distress calls regarding aggressive swans, the DEM has used egg addling since the late 1970s to control the swan population. This management program involves temporarily removing fertilized eggs from their nest, terminating the embryo inside and returning the now lifeless egg to the nest. By returning the egg, the bird believes it is still developing, and will not continue laying more eggs.
While Mastrati said the DEM would continue to employ these population control methods for what it sees as an invasive species, both Mero and Doonan vowed to continue fighting back by taking the matter to the Warwick City Council.
Doonan added that in addition to possibly trying to modify local laws that classify swans as an invasive species, she also wanted to emphasize humane education for people living near the swans, both children and adults.
“We need to give these poor animals a chance for protection,” she said. “And that includes changing the attitudes people have towards them.”
Mero suggested that perhaps the real non-native species are not the mute swans, but people at the pond.
“Moral of the story is a swan is a non-native species and is subject to being destroyed, yet any person from out of town can come and abuse the water and land at no cost,” she said.