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No rehab for mute swans?

A pair of mute swans.
Photo by Mary Hollinger, NESDIS/NODC biologist, NOAA
A pair of mute swans.

You've definitely seen mute swans: they're big, white birds with orange bills.  A lot of people love them.

But Michigan wildlife officials say there are too many mute swans in the state

So... the Department of Natural Resources and Environment is now proposing a change... one that’s making some people very angry.

Barbara Avers is a waterfowl specialist with the DNRE. She says mute swans are not native to the U.S. – they were brought over from Europe in the 1800's. Basically, because they’re pretty.

“They’ve grown exponentially in Michigan. They’re kind of many times the bullies of the marsh.”

Avers says mute swans eat a huge amount of vegetation in lakes. They can push out native birds, such as the trumpeter swan. And she says mute swans can snap and charge at people.

“Routinely each year we get reports of mute swan attacks on land, and kayakers, people on jet skis, people out fishing in a boat, and what we see is as mute swan population grows so do the number of conflicts we see.”

She says since the 1960’s... state wildlife officials have been trying to control the birds. They’ve been destroying nests and eggs, and shooting the birds. But she says that hasn’t been enough, and the mute swan’s population has swelled to more than 15,000 in the state.

The agency wants to make it illegal for people to rehabilitate injured mute swans.

Wildlife rehabilitators are typically volunteers. They have to get a license from the state in order to take in injured birds and mammals... nurse them back to health, and release them back to the wild.

If the DNRE’s proposal becomes law... rehabilitators would either have to leave the injured swan alone... or they could take it in but they would have to have it euthanized.

“I’m so disheartened, disenchanted and angry that I don’t feel like rehabilitating anything.”

Susanne Koschke has been rehabbing swans for 16 years. She says most of the injuries she’s seen on mute swans are caused by people.

“It’s telephone wires, it’s fish hooks, three pronged hooks that are really in the tongue. Sometimes in a cygnet’s belly.”

So – she says it wouldn’t be right to just let nature take its course. And she says mute swans have a right to be here.

“The swans, after about 200 years, they are a part of this country.”

Some rehabilitators also worry that they’ll lose the public’s trust.

Carol Akerloff rehabilitates birds in Washtenaw County. She says she gets a lot of calls from people who find birds tangled in fishing line.

“They bring birds to us, people come in almost in tears. And they’re almost embarrassed they’re caring about a bird, but this is something that’s alive. So we see them one at a time, whereas the DNR is looking at populations.”

Akerloff says she worries people won’t understand why she can’t help them with an injured swan.

The DNRE wants to reduce the mute swan population from about 15,000 birds to just 2,000.

The DNRE’s Barbara Avers says they want to make room for more native species such as the trumpeter swan and the common loon. But they don’t want to wipe out all of the mute swans either.

“You know, there certainly is a social value with mute swans, people love seeing this big beautiful bird on the lakes. At a low population level we think we can have mute swans on the landscape without causing these conflicts.”

The Natural Resources Commission is expected to vote on the DNRE’s proposal on February 10th.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.