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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Mute Swans

When we set out in our kayaks one evening this past week, there were five mute swans nearby, two adults and three immatures. They moved away warily and we gave them a wide berth so they wouldn’t feel threatened.

We continued around the lake and had no confrontations, although some swans can be very dangerous, especially those that have been harassed in the past. Fortunately our little lake has a no-wake rule, so the swans can live in relative peace, but they are highly territorial, especially when breeding.

Mute swans can be distinguished from other swans by their orange bills. There are three kinds of swans that can be found in Indiana, but only the mute swans stay here in the summer. In the winter or during migration we might see trumpeter swans or tundra swans (also called whistling swans). Trumpeter swans were hunted almost to the point of extinction but they are increasing in number, particularly in areas of the U.S. where they have been reintroduced. They were prized for their feathers, which reputedly made the best quill pens. Mute swans, on the other hand, are native to Europe and western Asia but were introduced here in the late 19th Century because of their graceful charm. Trumpeter swans tend to choose lakes and ponds that are remote from human encroachment, but mute swans tolerate humans...to a point!

Michigan has the highest U.S. population of mute swans (estimated at 15,500 in 2010), and they are increasing dramatically. According to a brochure put out by the Michigan DNR, the number of mute swans in Michigan tripled between 2000 and 2010. The issues with them are three: they can attack humans, they destroy wetland habitat that supports other waterfowl, and they have been known to chase native breeding waterfowl from their nests, including loons and trumpeter swans. Michigan’s goal is to reduce their population growth to zero by 2016 and to reduce the number of these birds in Michigan to fewer than 2,000 by 2030.

The Indiana DNR also has a brochure about mute swans. Although swans were removed from federal protection in 2004, they are still protected in Indiana. However a permit can be obtained to remove them or destroy the nests. Interestingly, in some places in the country, state DNRs, the Audubon Society, and other bird and conservation groups actively promote removal of mute swans but they are opposed by animal welfare groups and those individuals who enjoy their beauty.

Swans mate for life, but will take a new mate if something happens to the original one. Mute swans lay 1-11 eggs. When the cygnets hatch, they can swim within 24 hours and soon leave the nest. Cygnets may be gray or white, but they are all white as adults. The male is called a cob and the female is a pen. Once they reach adult size they have few predators, but as cygnets they are often targeted by snapping turtles that grab a leg and pull the cygnet under water until it drowns. The mute swans in our area do not migrate and can be found wherever there is open water in the winter.

So keep your distance from the swans, especially the ones with the orange bills, and consider yourself extremely lucky is you see a swan with a black bill – you have just seen one of North America’s native swans which are much less common than the mute swan.