They seem to be a natural part of the Hull landscape. We cannot imagine what Straits Pond would look like without mute swans gliding silently across the water. But they are a recent phenomenon, and even a threat. They are not supposed to be here, naturally speaking.
The New England Farmer, a Boston newspaper covering agricultural news of the region during the Industrial Revolution, unwittingly foretold the future of local mute swan populations in an article on the topic. “Some writers have expressed a doubt whether swans would breed in the New England States on account of the severity of the climate,” said the Feb. 22, 1851, article. “The habits of the swans and wild goose in freedom are alike. That wild geese do breed in confinement in the New England States no one doubts. Then, why will swans not do the same?” Two noted gentlemen, one in Providence, R.I., and one in Bridgeport, Conn., had been raising them in captivity for years. Surely, they would survive in the wild if they escaped.
But why raise them in the first place? Originally, they were symbols of wealth, imported from Europe to grace large personal estates, or even public gardens, much like an odd species of tree planted to stand out from those of one’s neighbors. (See, for instance, the Camperdown elm in front of the Hull Public Library). The Victorian Era, defined by the reign of England’s Queen Victoria from 1837-1901, was a time of “see and be seen.” There was no counterpart on New England waters to the gracefulness of a gleaming white mute swan.
For the New England Farmer, though, mute swans had more than just an aesthetic purpose. “Swans are beneficial in consuming all decaying aquatic weeds, the spawn and larvae of water insects,” the journal boasted. “The green slime which is so unsightly in sluggish waters is favorite food for them. They eradicate water-weeds, and keep the waters in which they are confined free from them, and, by consuming all putrescent matter, prevent the generation of the miasma so deleterious to the human race.”
Would it, therefore, be such a bad thing if the mute swan did escape or was released to breed in the wilds of New England?
Unfortunately, an answer would be forthcoming, for as the century rolled on, feral populations did pop up. Everett Ricker did not mention them in his 1890s booklet on the birds of Hull, nor did ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush have an account of the species in his epic three-part “Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States in the 1920s.” A century after the New England Farmer article, on April 29, 1951, The Boston Globe picked up an Associated Press story stating that “the birds have multiplied and spread until as many as 150 have been seen in one flock” on New York’s Long Island. “The swans settle on every pond and quiet bay in which Long Island abounds. Thousands swarm that 150-mile strip of land that is now devoted largely to suburban colonies and Summer resorts.” By 1958, there were 58 breeding pairs in New England.
From 1970 onward, the population exploded. By 2000, the estimated population in the United States had reached 15,000 individuals, mostly concentrated from New Hampshire to the Delmarva Peninsula.
The population expansion shows no sign of slowing down. The birds are members of the biggest species to be found on New England waters (smaller tundra swans and larger trumpeter swans live well to the west of New England). Although they prefer fresh water, they are flexible enough to live in brackish water and can even move to the shoreline and inhabit habitats near the mouths of rivers when ponds freeze. They can migrate but locally, within their breeding range, if completely necessary. And other than man, they have no major predators to worry about. They can be nasty and territorial, staking out ponds as their own, chasing off other species of waterfowl, and even other, nonfamilial swans. They have become so disruptive that four states on the Atlantic Flyway (Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware) have control measures in place, including egg addling.
They also generally have no competition for food on local ponds, like Straits Pond. They prefer places where they can dabble, dip, and upend for aquatic vegetation, meaning that anything within range of their 20- to 45-centimeter-long reach – the benefit of that big s-curved neck – is fair game. Since they upend themselves, entirely submerging their heads and necks to reach down even further than just dipping, they can get to food that no other non-diving species can.
Once, while in Maryland, a friend of mine shouted “Oh my god!” as we were looking through spotting scopes at a pond. She had just seen, at what felt like close range: a mute swan lift its head up from underwater with a ruddy duck in its bill, “spitting” it out. The little swimmer had been feeding on plants the mute swan wanted; the swan clamped onto the duck and tossed it out of the way.
A ballet (or bevy, drift, herd, regatta, or whiteness) of mute swans can adversely impact a pond habitat, overgrazing aquatic vegetation and stirring up sediments in the water that inhibit the sunlight that is needed to keep that vegetation growing. That, in turn, causes disruptions for other species dependent on that vegetation for food and shelter.
All that said, mute swans have captured our fancy. The dad (the “pen”) and the mom (the “cob”) raise broods of four to 10 highly photogenic cygnets. The youngsters have to feed themselves, but the parents will rip food from below the surface for them. If a cygnet cannot feed itself, it will be ignored and will die. Cygnets also fall prey to snapping turtles. The cob will try to scare off threats when shepherding young on the water. They have been known to attack canoes and even drown sizable dogs. Their most beautiful pose, with their wings half-raised (known as “busking”), is actually meant to be threatening; it can also be used for wind-surfing. If the little ones survive, 13 years is a good life for a mute swan. The oldest known American wild mute swan lived to 26 years and nine months.
Mute swans can mate for life, as black vultures, Atlantic puffins, bald eagles, and other species can, but “divorces” do occur. Three percent of pairs that successfully raised young together will go their separate ways, while 9 percent of pairs that do not have breeding success will divorce. So, there is a very good chance that the pair that we see on Straits Pond each spring has been together for years.
For better or worse, mute swans are now part of our Straits Pond experience, and it does not seem like they will be moving on any time soon. If the current mating pair or pairs leave for whatever reason, another young pair will move in. It’s a safe bet to say that there will be swans a-swimming in Hull waters for years to come.