A conversation on swans at the barbershop

ESCANABA — One of the reasons I love living here in the U.P. is that just about anywhere you go, there is bound to be a conversation regarding the outdoors and/or wildlife. Just such a conversation occurred this week when I went for a haircut at a local barber shop.

One chair was occupied by a gentleman from Gladstone who was reading one of the many outdoors magazines shelved for patrons. He and barber Brent were talking about a number of topics, one of which was regarding the swans of Bay View.

Many may remember that about five years ago, swans started showing up along the open shore in Bay View between Escanaba and Gladstone. One nesting pair seemed to capture the hearts of viewers with their majestic beauty. Each spring the two would return and have offspring that would remain until they were old enough and seasonally prepared to fly south during the migration period.

They’re gone. No one has seen them for a couple years now. For a time there were more showing up to the south near the Terrace Bay Inn and they’re gone, too.

I joined the conversation and reminded both gentlemen that these were mute swans. Mutes, unlike the trumpeter swan that is mild by nature, can be very aggressive in defense of their nests and are highly protective of their mate and offspring. Most defensive attacks from a mute swan begin with a loud hiss and, if this is not sufficient to drive off the predator, are followed by a physical attack. Swans attack by smashing at their enemy with bony spurs in the wings, accompanied by biting with their large bill. Along with these facts, the mute swan has also been classified as a nuisance species.

These exotic birds escaped into the Chesapeake Bay in 1962, and now number in the thousands. Mute swans destroy submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) beds-adults eat more than eight pounds of bay grasses every day. They pull out whole plants, including their roots and rhizomes. They also disrupt nesting colonial water birds. A series of future mute swan eradication efforts look to include: state regulation of the sale and possession of mute swans and their eggs; elimination of importing and exporting of mute swans without a special permit; mute swans captured due to nuisance complaints, sickness, or injury should be removed from the wild; egg addling programs; and states should seek to make the mute swan an unprotected species if this is not already the case.

About the same times as they began appearing along the lakeshore, the federal government via the U.S. Department of Agriculture / Fish and Wildlife Service, engaged plans to reduce the populations of mute swans across the nation by as much as 85 percent. As I recall, the only place the bird was desired would be in a zoo setting.

At one point, two rambunctious Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) conservation officers took it upon themselves to one day work the shoreline and dispatch the resident birds. It was upsetting to those who had grown fond of seeing the swans along the shore, even though the mutes would not be happy to see anyone up close and would most likely be on the attack. While eliminating the swans was within the law, the timing and location made for an embarrassing moment for the officers. They were strongly urged to not do it again.

That was one instance, so why haven’t we seen more return?

This spring, Roy Dahlgren from the U.P. Trappers pointed out to me that he’d seen some muskrat huts in the area. I shared this information into the conversation and wondered if the muskrats were like raccoons, possums and skunks that raided eggs from nests like they do with turkeys. Yet again, muskrats are great for waterfowl habitat in that they create openings in marshes in eating cattails, so maybe they weren’t an issue.

A quick inquiry to Dahlgren confirmed muskrats are not a negative to nesting birds. So there must be another cause.

While there was no resolve, I enjoyed the exchanges regarding the topic. There was no finger pointing for blame and in the mean time, I got a haircut.

The discussion also stayed with me throughout the day. I later reached out to the MDNR’s local wildlife technician Colt Luben to curb my curiosity. He believes that the USDA has continued to work on de-populating mute swans (away from public view) and may be why we are not seeing locals in the bay shore area. They are taken during migration periods further out in the lakes.

While some of you reading this may not agree with the process, I believe it is actually of benefit not only for the long term goals set by the USDA, it will, by coincidence, most likely be a good thing given that the new non-motorized pathway is open and growing in use. I can visualize someone encountering the seemingly timid peaceful birds, perhaps trying to feed them a treat, only to be attacked and chased away from getting bitten or hit from the mute’s aggressive, territorial nature. if the later were true, I can see the local headlines reading: “Public calls for control of angry birds along lakeshore!”

I won’t be back for another haircut until after the start of small game hunting season, but when I do, I’ll have an update from my last visit and hope to hear how some are seeing more grouse.


Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.