CASSADAGA – Residents here regard their mute swans as the poster bird for peace and tranquility in their small Chautauqua County lakeside village. ¶ The state, though, says the mute swan belongs on a wanted poster - and better dead than alive. Or at least not in New York State. ¶ The elegant and regal swan appears in county tourism material, prominently in the logo of the nearby spiritual community of Lily Dale and even draws lovers to the shores of the Cassadaga Lake as a backdrop for “swan weddings.” Last year, the mute swan was named Cassadaga’s official bird by mayoral proclamation.
But the waterfowl is just another non-native species that doesn’t belong here and has overstayed its welcome, according to the state conservationists.
“They’re destructive,” said Rich Davenport, a regional alternate director for the state Conservation Council.
And that is why mute swan populations should be eliminated from upstate New York, according to the DEC’s recently revised management plan.
In some cases, that could come at the end of a shotgun.
“Horrendous,” said Joanne Copley-Nigro, a Lily Dale resident. “It’s horrendous. I can’t see hurting any type of wildlife for people’s convenience.”
The state’s 16-page revised draft report reads like an indictment:
• Mute swans are not indigenous to North America. They were captive birds brought here from Europe a century ago to decorate the grounds of aristocrats’ mansions.
• They eat vast amounts of vegetation, disrupting aquatic ecosystems.
• Large and aggressive, they can attack humans as well as other native birds and wildlife.
• They’re prodigious poopers with feces loaded with harmful bacteria.
• Mute swans also pose “a serious threat of aviation,” the report says.
The birds aren’t the problem in upstate New York that they are near New York City, where they were introduced around 1900. Of the roughly 2,200 mute swans in the Empire State, more than 90 percent are found on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.
The birds only began encroaching into upstate in the mid-1980s. It’s suspected that the second population originated from Ontario, as many nest along the Lake Ontario shoreline. Except for a pocket near Rochester, the numbers of mute swans were largely stabilized upstate early this century.
But, after detecting free-ranging swans “at new locations every year” and being mindful of the lessons learned from the rapid proliferation of Canada geese in recent decades, state officials say they can’t take any chances.
“In the absence of management, wild mute swan populations will expand throughout New York State and could reach numbers in excess of 5,000 birds within 20 years,” the report states. “The consequences of not preventing such population growth include reduced habitat availability and value of native fish and wildlife species, including several of conservation concern.”
DEC bird surveys indicate there are likely fewer than 20 mute swans spread across Western New York. Besides the roughly half-dozen at Cassadaga Lakes, others have been documented on Oak Orchard Creek in Orleans County.
But a growing population of roughly 200 or more not that far away along the Lake Ontario shoreline, especially in the Rochester area, has officials concerned.
“Over time, mute swans could expand to almost any freshwater ponds, lakes, rivers and marshes in Western New York,” according to the DEC. “They have not done that yet because the population only got a foothold in Western New York in the late 1980s and we have been actively working to control the population since that time. However, it is a constant battle and we need to increase the effort now to ensure it does not expand beyond our ability to control it,” the DEC said.
Each mute swan can eat up to eight pounds of aquatic vegetation every day and in a growing season can eat more than 70 percent of the vegetation in its environment, according to the DEC. That can significantly affect food supplies for native species and habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures.
“They will feed in the shallows and they actively destroy the plants and rip them out, roots and all,” said Davenport, who supports the DEC’s management plan. “They’ll truly eat themselves out of house and home.”
It’s not surprising they eat so much. They’re big birds.
Lily Dale Assembly historian Ron Nagy can attest to that. He came face-to-face with a mute swan during a walk.
“That thing spread its wings and it was as tall as my Subaru,” Nagy said. “And, its wing-span was as wide as my car.”
Still, they’re important to Lily Dale and the surrounding community, Nagy and others said.
The first recorded swans at Lily Dale were licensed to the assembly’s late maintenance man, Louis Joy. And, they had names: “Lily” and “Dale.”
Invasive or not, the progeny of Lily and Dale have paddled around Cassadaga Lake long enough to deserve amnesty, residents here say.
“These swans represent us as well as the sunflower and the waterlilies,” said Susan Glasier, Lily Dale’s executive director. “They represent part of what we are.”
“They’re vital to Lily Dale.”
Measures that could be taken on smaller upstate flocks like those in Cassadaga and Orleans County remained specifically undefined in the DEC’s revised plan, but some in the Cassadaga community were heartened by what they deemed to be productive dialogue with the agency toward keeping their small brood.
The DEC issued its first plan to manage the mute swan population early last year, but went back to the drawing board following significant public outcry from many, including Chuck Battaglia, a retired vice president and lakes manager of the Cassadaga Lakes Association.
“It’s still a victory for those who didn’t want them killed,” said Battaglia who added that New York’s residents were the only ones out of six states with similar plans to convince state officials to reconsider. “It’s not a statewide problem and should never have been addressed that way.”
Efforts like those in Cassadaga is what led the DEC to revise its plan that now states that “Complete elimination of mute swans from New York is not a viable option given the expressed public opinions associated with these birds.”
That’s why the agency, in its draft, stated it would “accommodate the public desire to maintain swans” as long as their impact is kept in check.
Battaglia said concerned citizens in three other states are now trying to follow the success residents earned here.
“They’re just very majestic birds,” said Peter George, who succeeded Battaglia as vice president of the Cassadaga Lakes Association and lakes manager. “In the smaller numbers we have them, we’re very comfortable with them.”
Public comment on the revised plan ended in April.
DEC officials said they will spend a few months reviewing the comments before releasing a final management plan for the mute swan later this summer.