Swans, A Very Beautiful Problem

BY ROBERT PREER, GLOBE CORRESPONDENT, Summer 2001

Proliferation of swans spurs concerns

When the first mute swans appeared on Straits Pond on the Hull-Cohasset border, residents cheered the arrival of the graceful white birds with S-shaped necks and regal bearing. Then, more swans came. In 1999, there were 36 on the pond, which is just inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The following year; 57. This year’s count- 77.

The proliferation of the huge birds – the first or second largest flying animal in the world (some ornithologists consider the trumpeter swan larger) – is alarming residents on the shores of the 92-acre pond, which has suffered from years of septic pollution and stormwater runoff. While extension of municipal sewers in Hull and Cohasset has buoyed hopes for the pond’s recovery, many residents now view the swans as a new threat.

“They are a very beautiful problem,” said Lawry Reid of Hull, president of the Straits Pond Association. “We are certainty enjoying the swans, but they are exacerbating the problems we already have.” Adult swans weigh between 20 and 40 pounds, and each day consume 10 pounds of plant life. The nutrients in the swans’ excrement, which is about the size and shape of that produced by dogs, are feeding an overgrowth of aquatic plants and algae. “We have too much plant growth,” said Reid. This is not an ecologically healthy pond.”

From Virginia to Boston’s North Shore and in scattered lakes and ponds in the Northeast and Midwest, concern is mounting about growing numbers of mute swans. The birds, introduced to this country from Europe in the late 1800s as captives, have been expanding significantly in the wild for roughly the past 20 years.

In addition to contributing to pollution, swans are seen by some biologists as a threat to native species, especially certain kinds of ducks, which cannot compete with swans for food and nesting areas. Also, swans can be aggressive and have attacked humans and pets. The first mute swans in America were brought to adorn parks and estates, in the same way European monarchs kept swans as royal birds on palace grounds.

The wings of captive birds were clipped to keep them from flying. Some swans, probably offspring of the captives, escaped, and by the 1920s, a wild population had been established on Long Island. Swans then expanded up and down the Atlantic coast.

In Massachusetts, the largest concentration is in the southeastern part of the state, especially the South Shore and Martha’s Vineyard. In recent years, the population has expanded inland and to the North Shore, according to the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. In the south suburbs, swans are found on dozens of ponds, rivers, and harbors, both fresh and saltwater.

Musquashicut Pond in Scituate and the freshwater Billington Sea in Plymouth have large numbers of swans. They also have been seen in Scituate Harbor and at Long Pond and Jenney Pond in Plymouth, D.W. Field Park in Brockton, Black’s Creek in Quincy’s Merrymount Park, Island Grove Pond in Abington, and Ponkapoag Pond in Canton in the Blue Hills Reservation.

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has been tracking the state’s mute swan population since 1985. In that period, the numbers have increased from 400 to roughly 900 today. The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s less scientific annual Christmas bird count does not show a significant increase in the swan population. From 1982 to 1999, the number of swans counted by Audubon volunteers has been steady at around 600.

Mute swans do not migrate but in winter often move about in search of food as ponds freeze. Although ungainly on takeoff and landing, swans are strong fliers, and can reach 40 miles per hour.

Among biologists and wildlife management officials there is widespread – though not unanimous – agreement that swans are a problem in the state. Swans are viewed as an invasive, nonnative species, like the European starling or English sparrow. At their size, swans have few predators. Snapping turtles, dogs, and coyotes are the only animals locally that pose much of a threat.

“I’m very concerned about the range expansion of the bird,” said H Heusmann, waterfowl biologist for Fisheries and Wildlife. “The damage they do is incremental. You may not notice it, but it will buildup.” Linda Coca, natural history information coordinator for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said, “There isn’t a biologist in the state who is happy they are here. They are not a good thing.” Less alarmed about the expansion of the mute swan population is David Clapp, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s regional office in Marshfield. He said that while there are more swans in the state now, their numbers are not exploding, nor are they causing huge problems.

Clapp said that while swans can compete with native breeding ducks for habitat, “frankly we don’t have many native breeding ducks in Massachusetts.” More serious invasive species are plants that are choking local ponds, according to Clapp. “There are bigger problems to put your energies into.”

What is dear is that the public loves swans. Few sights in nature are more appealing than a mated pair of swans floating on the water with the cygnets or young trailing the mother. The flight of the swan also is spectacular. “When they start to flap their wings to fly, it is an amazing sound,” Reid said. The arrival of a pair of captive swans on the Boston Public Garden is celebrated as a rite of spring. In response to requests from the public, Boston park officials this year agreed to place a pair of swans on Jamaica Pond. The swans at the Public Garden and on Jamaica Pond are same sex birds, raised on a farm, and are young birds, which are less aggressive than older ones.

Although hand feeding of swans is a common practice in parks, humans are wise to keep their distance. Swans can inflict severe cuts with their beaks. In the water, they use their wings to beat and drown anything they perceive as an enemy. There are two recorded cases of humans being killed by swans. In 1982, a fisherman in Indiana died when a swan apparently capsized his boat and drowned him. Although accounts are sketchy, a child in Massachusetts was reported killed by a swan around 1930.

Efforts to control the swan population have met with little success. In Rhode Island, wildlife agency officials shake or “addle” the eggs to prevent them from hatching. (If the eggs are removed from the nest, the female will simply lay-more.) The swan population in Rhode Island has grown almost as fast as it has in Massachusetts, where egg addling has not been tried.

The most common way to control waterfowl populations is to establish a hunting season. Although mute swans have no protection in some states and can be killed humanely by landowners, no state has established a season on the birds. “I have not heard of any push by sportsman groups or wildlife biologists for a hunting season,” said Bill Davis, Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife spokesman. “I think there would be great opposition to it.”

Heusmann said a swan-hunting season would not involve hunters picking off birds on a neighborhood pond, where the discharge of a firearm would be illegal anyway. Like other waterfowl hunting, it would have to be conducted along the coast when the birds are in flight, he said. Heusmann stressed there is no serious talk about a swan season, and all that officials can do now is monitor the bird’s expansion. “The problem is that they are white. They’re in the Boston Public Garden. They’re pretty. It’s like the “Ugly Duckling” story. In the case of the swans, though, the ugliness is on the inside,” he said.

Guide to Goose Problems

Most people enjoy seeing Canada geese. However, the big birds often wear out their welcome when they become too numerous and when yards, beaches and docks become fouled with their feces. This guide explains why problems with geese arise and how homeowners can reduce these problems.

Why are there so many geese?
Canada goose populations have dramatically increased in residential and lake home areas because: 1) habitat is abundant; 2) geese have a high reproductive potential and a long life span; and 3) mortality from hunting and other predation is low. Geese live in a particular area that meets their needs for food, reproduction and security. Together these factors provide goose habitat.

Geese are grazers that feed primarily on short grasses such as those found in parks, lawns and golf courses. They need feeding sites with open vistas and access to lakes and marshes to escape danger. Golf courses, parks and large lawns next to ponds, marshes and lakes often provide all of these ingredients. Docks, yards and beaches provide secure “loafing” sites for preening and sunning.

Canada geese are extremely prolific. Able to reproduce at 2 or 3 years of age and living to over 10 years, a pair of adult geese raises and average of about 4 young per year. At normal reproduction and mortality, a pond or lake with 3 pairs of adult geese can multiply to nearly 50 birds within 5 years and to over 300 in just 10 years. Being social birds geese congregate in “flocks,” except during the nesting season. Most birds in these flocks are related and return to the same nesting and feeding areas every year.

How can I get the geese to leave?

Landscaping
Landscaping your shoreline to make it less attractive for Canada geese is considered the most effective long-term and environmentally sound method of reducing goose problems to individual yards and lawns. Temporary measures such as fences or repellents may be necessary to keep geese from you yard until landscaping is established.

An unmowed shoreline buffer of native grasses and wild flowers that grow 20-30 inches tall in a strip 20-30 feet wide along the shoreline can discourage goose visits. And more importantly, this will help reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into the lake. Native grasses generally remain standing even after winter snows have compacted most other grasses.

Use an S-shaped footpath (3-4 feet wide) to provide access from your yard to the shoreline. Newly seeded and lush green lawns are too irresistible for geese to pass up. Anything you can do to reduce or eliminate turf grasses will keep geese off your property.

A hedge near the water with a gate to allow access can be decorative as well as effective at reducing goose access to your lawn. Canada geese avoid using areas where plants obstruct their view of the surrounding area. The hedge should be 30-36 inches tall and must be thick enough to exclude geese. Check with you local nursery or greenhouse for shrubs that will work in your yard.

Leave a dense strip of naturally occurring trees and shrubs (20-30 feet wide) along the shoreline. A narrow (3-4 feet wide) S-shaped foot path can provide access to the lake.

A combination of the two above is usually the most effective deterrent. Contact your local nursery for guides to shoreline landscaping.

Hazing
The simplest method involves frightening or hazing geese. In some cases, repeatedly and vigorously chasing geese from the property while armed with a broom will cause the geese to relocate. Noise-making scare devices are a type of pyrotechnics and can sometimes be used to haze geese from you property. Pyrotechnics are most applicable in rural settings. These include “bangers” and “screamers” fired from a special launcher or “cracker shells” discharged from a 12-gauge shotgun. These devices are often offensive to neighbors. Check local ordinances before purchasing or using pyrotechnics consistent with manufacturer’s instructions and safety precautions.

Bird Scare Tape
Bird scare tape or bird flash tape is a short-term or emergency strategy to reduce problems from geese walking onto your yard. Bird scare tape is a thin shiny mylar ribbon. It is silver on one side, usually red on the other. When properly used, the tape flashes in the sun and rattles in the breeze, frightening geese.

Bird scare tape is not effective if geese are flying into your yard. Locate the tape “fence” where it is visible to the geese. The fence should be long enough so geese cannot walk around it into the yard. Check the yellow pages for local suppliers of scare tape.
Energized Fencing
Energized fencing can effectively and practically reduce goose grazing in your yard. It is useful in situations more severe than hazing or bird scare tape can handle. Most home owners prefer portable fencing that can be set up in 1-2 hours and quickly taken down for storage when not in use. If you are interested in using energized fencing for geese, check local ordinances and contact your Area Wildlife Office for more information.

Barrier Fencing
Barrier Fencing is a very effective method for excluding walking geese from your yard. This method consists of placing a physical barrier that geese cannot pass through between the water and the area to be protected. Barrier fences can be constructed from woven wire, chicken wire, plastic snow fence, corn cribbing, chain-link, netting, or a picket fence. An effective barrier fence for walking Canada geese uses durable material with openings no larger than 3 inches by 3 inches that is at least 30 inches high.

Feeding Foul in North Attleboro

BY AMY NEWBURY, SUN CHRONICLE STAFF, 9/1/2000, -NORTH ATTLEBORO-

You could run afoul of law if you feed fowl in North

Feeding geese within town limits could cost much more than the price of birdseed if a new bylaw is approved at October’s town meeting. The conservation commission is sponsoring an article that would prohibit anyone from feeding waterfowl in the Anatidae family – including ducks, geese, and swans – within town limits, even on private property.

Anyone found violating the bylaw, which will be enforced by the town’s conservation and health agents, will be fined $50.00 per offence. Conservation Agent Derek Saari said health and public safety concerns prompted the bylaw proposal. “We’re concerned about the health hazards. You wouldn’t believe what some of the back yards I’ve seen look like,” Saari said. “Fortunately, the geese haven’t been a problem for the water supply yet. We’ve had the water tested and the fecal counts are below the state standards.”

Saari said once a resident begins to feed a flock of geese, yards throughout the neighborhood are fouled up by the wandering fowl. “Geese have been an ongoing problem, and we’ve had several action-needed reports filed from concerned citizens,” Saari said. “Since there wasn’t a bylaw, we could stop people from feeding waterfowl on publicly owned land, but not on privately owned land.”

Some neighbors have resorted to putting up fences in an attempt to keep the birds out of the yard, only to find that the birds are flying over the fences anyway, he said. Saari said that’s about as far as many of the birds are flying these days- some are so well fed, they stay in the area year round. He said the amount of food available in the natural environment would not sustain the large number of waterfowl that currently exists in town. If people are forced to stop feeding waterfowl, the number of geese will shrink to more manageable and safer levels.

The proposed bylaw does not restrict the feeding of domesticated waterfowl by a farmer on the property, by a licensed propagator within a confined area or by those who legally keep waterfowl as a pet.

Note: The above article was approved at the October Town Meeting.

Domestic Ducks vs. Winter

Members of the group WRAP (Waterfowl Rescue and Placement) have been assisting in the care, feeding and removal of several domestic ducks and geese on Bungay Lake. A local veterinarian, Dr. Trapani, helped provide the educational information below.

To members of the Lake Association,

WRAP (Waterfowl Rescue and Placement) is a group of people whose members include a veterinarian, a representative from Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife, waterfowl breeders, backyard hobby farmers, animal shelter volunteers and others concerned with the birds’ welfare.

There are many domestic geese and ducks on the lake that, without human intervention, would die of starvation and/or get eaten by predators since they cannot fly. The domestic and wild waterfowl have very different nutritional requirements. The wild birds have evolved to survive on whatever they can find in nature. The domestic birds have been selectively bred for generations for high egg production, or for meat or as dual-purpose birds. Such birds cannot survive on a diet found in the wild.

The feed we are giving them is a compromise. We don’t want to provide the nutritious diet necessary for the domestic birds because it would be too rich for the wild birds. Instead, we are feeding cracked corn, which will keep the domestic birds from starvation but will not supply the nutrition they need to keep them in good health. One problem is that breeding season is approaching and these ducks and geese have not been able to store up the calcium needed to produce hard-shelled eggs. It’s possible that many of the females will die from problems associated with a calcium deficiency.

In addition to the differences in dietary needs, WRAP has several other concerns (not necessarily listed in order of significance).

No one should be feeding the wild birds. It encourages them to stay in the vicinity of the food throughout the winter instead of migrating. In fact, studies have shown that if the parents don’t migrate, their offspring won’t either – because they don’t know the route to what should be their winter home. So you get successive generations on your lake in the winter.

It seems that some people think that bread is good for them. They love bread – it’s like candy – but it is not a good feed for birds, even the wild ones. One problem with bread is that it fills them up and they don’t forage for their proper diet. Another is that the birds do not develop adequate muscle tone. Therefore, even if they knew the way, they are not physically capable of flying the distance to a winter home.

Another concern is that when the wild and domestic birds interbreed, the wild gene pool becomes diluted and the offspring are generally weaker. This is perpetuated through successive generations.

The addition of the domestic waterfowl on the lake causes several problems. One is that they are competing with the wild birds for what little food is available during the harsh winter months. They are contributing to the contamination of the lake waters and surrounding area. It’s possible for the domestic birds to introduce new diseases to the wild bird population for which the wild birds have no immunity.

As the snow recedes, the ducks and geese are venturing farther from the lake in search of food and nesting sites. They are walking on the road, causing drivers to swerve and stop short, thus causing a traffic hazard.

It appears that some time in late fall or early winter, someone (or ones) dumped domestic waterfowl on your lake. WRAP’s short-term goal is to remove as many of the domestic birds as we can and place them in good homes. We’ve already done so with some of them but there are still more to capture and place with people who will take care of them.

If new domestic birds should be placed on the lake next year, we would like to mount a rescue as soon as possible after the birds appear so that we can avoid all the problems that their presence produces.