Tundra swans on Eastern Neck Island.
Over the frozen Bay a high fluting call echoes off the ice and resonates. It heralds a flying wedge of some of the most magnificent migratory waterfowl to grace the Chesapeake, come wintertime- swans. These arctic natives, all chilly white, populate the coves along the shoreline throughout the Bay’s deepest winter. Along with scores of ducks and geese, swans seek refuge in the Bay’s many rivers, creeks, and marshes, punctuating the icy shallows with their distinctive woodwind calls as they feed on the Bay’s underwater meadows. Once these enormous, powerful birds were the most coveted game a hunter could bag, and swan decoys, poised in repose or bottom-up in full feed, were added to a mixed rig in hopes of attracting an unsuspecting tundra swan.
Swan hunters at Miller’s Island, late 19th century.
Swans were a waterfowler’s prized trophy. Traditionally, swan populations were smaller in number than the other waterfowl, and their ivory feathers and huge wingspan stood out distinctively from the rest of the flock, making them both relatively rare and easy to spot. In that era, when every Chesapeake marsh was crowded with waterfowl in the wintertime, a light dusting of indigenous Tundra or Trumpeter swans was part of the landscape. Their oboe-like calls made them just as identifiable by sound alone.
Swan hunting was effectively ended in 1918 with the Migratory Bird Act, which protected hundreds of species of birds from killing or capture, whether for their flesh or their feathers. It was exoneration for the magnificent migrators, and ensured that countless new generations of swans would continue to wing their way south towards the Chesapeake once the days began to shorten. By 1972, according to the Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey, the Chesapeake wintered more than 70% of the tundra swans in the Atlantic Flyway.
Tundra swan, Kent Island. Photo courtesy of chesapeakebay.net
But since the 1960’s, there’s been a beautiful impostor infiltrating the Chesapeake- the mute swan. As year-round residents, these European swans devour the already-imperiled underwater grasses of the Bay, and addressing the problem of their population boom and its impact has created controversy among Chesapeake residents and landowners, bird lovers, and the Department of Natural Resources.
Mute swan, photo courtesy of chesapeakebay.net
The mute swan, an invasive species, was first introduced to the Chesapeake as an ornamental bird. Native to Europe, these elegant-but-voracious domesticated birds were used as scenery, decorating ponds on private estates. In 1962, five mute swans escaped from an estate in Talbot County, not far from where the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is today. These birds went on to reproduce expansively, and their offspring evidently found the Bay’s grassy bottom and protected shoreline to be a perfect new home. In 1999, their population count hit an all-time high, with 4,000 estimated birds.
But if swans are already native to the Chesapeake Bay, then what’s the harm in adding a few more? The answer- seasonality and territory. Mute swans (distinguishable from their native cousins by their curved necks and orange bills) are year-round residents, while tundra or trumpeter swans are migratory. That means mute swans, constantly grazing, are clearing swaths of bay grasses year-round without pause. In addition, their highly territorial nature causes them to trample the nests of other seabirds, and drive off tundra swans when they arrive in the fall.
Mute swans take flight.
Addressing the problem of the mute swan population stirred up much controversy. Beginning in 2001, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources attempted to limit the mute swan’s population growth by removing and relocating adults, addling eggs before they hatched, and when necessary, by hunting. It was a successful strategy in terms of swan control, but the reduction initiative struck a highly emotional note for many in the watershed, from animal rights activists to ordinary citizens. In a letter to the Washington Post in 2011, an Arlington resident summed up how many felt about the control measures:
“Thousands of mute swans have been cruelly killed by wildlife officials over the past couple of years because the birds consume aquatic plants. Only a few hundred mute swans remain in this region.We must teach our children to live with wildlife — native and non-native. Unnecessary killing of mute swans is not a substitute for the humane and enlightened management that these wonderful animals deserve.”
It is worth noting that while the plight of the mute swan was contentious, population control for other, less majestic species has not been so disputed- the eradication of homely nutria, for example, has caused no real public outcry.
By 2012, fewer than 100 mute swans were counted in the Chesapeake- a major victory for the native tundra swans, which now have abundant stretches of shoreline for shelter and sustenance. It also means that the chances have just gotten much better for that magical moment,when the wind dies down and sound carries far over a wintry Bay, that the woodwind peals of a tundra swans, far overhead, can be heard.