Friday, January 18, 2008

Interview with Kathryn Burton of Save Our Swans

The Connecticut Audubon is considering asking the State to cull its mute swan populations, claiming that the birds are non-native and are causing damage to coastal environments.

Kathryn Burton, president of Save Our Swans, disagrees with the science behind the CT Audubon's claims, and is ready to fight any effort to control mute swan populations.

Do you believe the Connecticut Audubon's claim that Mute Swans are "wreaking havoc" on coastal ecosystems?

No, and its just not belief, it is verified by a lack of data promised year after year. There certainly has been enough time for Maryland and/or Connecticut to do the studies. Maryland has the USGS and a variety of other experts and Connecticut has University of Connecticut. The "bird man" there, Chris Elphick, who was editor for the new Sibley handbook of birds, sent me an email, which I'll attach. It says he has "read no studies that show major problems with the swans, but if the feds are hell bent on a killing program, then they must do it, quickly." Grant receivers sometimes sell their souls for that money and throw ethics out the window. This is a fact S.Dillon Ripley, who headed Smithsonian and the bird department at Yale, was afraid was happening in the environmental movement and he was right.

As president of a coastal land conservation trust, I am a member of Wetlands International, and a RAMSAR (a U.N. org) associate, also British and American Ornithological Unions and I am very involved in the health of bodies of water, worldwide. On the east coast, we have two bodies of water that are the "poster children" for abused watersheds and dieing coastal areas, the Chesapeake Bay and the Long Island Sound, both suffering from almost four hundred years of abuse from man. Maryland has its chicken and hog farms immediately adjacent to the shore, as well as chemical, paper, and industrial facilities and Connecticut has, I'll name just one company, Pfizer, which dumps 600,000 pounds of solid and liquid waste into the Sound and we have ancient infrastructure that allows non-point pollution to seep into every creek, stream, lake and river unabated, because the state cannot deal with making the citizens do what's usual the problem is both about money and politics.

Because after thirty years of grants being poured into the Chesapeake the situation has never improved, the Federal government, under NOAA, will be taking it over in two years. The problems should not be blamed on any of the more than two million birds that fly through or overwinter there and eat the grasses. It is what birds do and if we had kept it clean both birds and people would be better off.

There are no problems with Mute Swans anywhere else in the seventy countries in which they are found, in fact little England and Holland each have more Mute Swans than we have, here, 20,000 without problems. England, in fact, has created laws to get rid of the degraded lead shot that has been killing off birds for many years and are delighted to announce more swans are there now than before the program started.

Why would Connecticut announce plans to control populations of Mute Swans - a beloved bird in the eyes of the general public - if they weren't actually a threat to coastal waters?

I have the minutes of meetings and decisions made at meetings in which the decision was made to do as a program, what had been done in some areas as "silent takings," by individual agents for a long time. I will be happy to send it to you [Ed. note: tis was not sent] and it does not include discussion of "Problems" presented against the mute swans as a defense. The first activities were the breaking of necks in Yosemite, not on a coastal shoreline or in an eelgrass bed, simply "because they were there."

Remember, five species of swan come onto the American continent, Trumpeter, Whooper, Bewickii, Tundra and Mutes. Whooper and Bewickii are killed on sight by agencies, Tundra are hunted, that leaves Mute and Trumpeter, whose number at 26,000+ is higher than the Mute's number have ever been, by about 10,000.

The decline in hunting numers has created a need for "trophies," and among these, will be the Trumpeter Swan, already hunted during trials in the Pacific Flyway, a program approved years ago by ex president of The Trumpeter Swan Society, Harvey Nelson.

Banko, in the last few pages of The Trumpeter Swan, warns against the hybridization potential if Mutes and Trumpeters fly together, which they do already, in some areas. Hybrids may be good for cars, but the hunters do not want them. The swan family is so close genetically, they can produce fertile offspring as shown by Charles Sibley at Yale.

Anyway, I believe this all started very early on, when the Hudson's Bay workers saw the Mute Swans as a symbol of the crown they were killing themselves to keep wealthy, across the ocean. They were right, but should not have hated the bird for what Henry VIII did by naming the bird "Royal."

The Audubon claims that the reason behind the plan is that Mutes are an invasive species that threaten native species. Do you disagree?

Yes, and they have no proof behind the claim, or it would have surfaced in one of our several cases in federal court. They have only their name, which they are quickly sullying, through a variety of things, like opening up their properties for hunting, just like The Nature Conservancy.

There are 20,000+ Mute Swans in Holland, England, a number of countries smaller than the U.S. without problems. In fact the swans are carefully protected in many. The number has never gone passed 16,000 according to USF&W numbers, provided by the fourteen states in which Mute Swans live.

Mute swans were thought to be non-native in a number of countries, that is brought by man rather than flying in and settling down on their own, which is the agency's definition of "native," but since the 1970s specimens have been found in bogs from thousandsa of years ago, in England, Holland, Sweden among others, showing their historic range remains today.

The fossils found here and studied at Berkeley show a taxa identified in the resultant papers as "very close to Cygnus olor, or as in the case of Arizona, "probably a Mute Swan." the identification is relatively simple as their interior architecture is different, with the windpipe going directly into the lungs, without the long loop back and then out, as seen in the other swans.

Denment'ev, the great Russian scientist in his book Birds of the Soviet Union Vol 2 (1951) put the Mutes in the Russian Maritimes, right across from Alaska a passage used by millions of birds, including Whooper, Bewickii and Whistler, the last two now comingled as "Tundra swan." The Tundras are now hunted here and the Whoopers are shot on sight on state or federal lands. The Trumpeter will face the same future, as an open swan hunting season has been approved by The Trumpeter Swan Society.

Have there been Mute fossils (or other evidence of native populations) found in Connecticut?

No one has looked for them or other birds, I guess because of the vast areas of shale and granite and a very shallow growing medium available. Not much work here, none that I can name, except the dinasauers found in Rocky Hill in the 1930s or 40s.

Until recent time, it was thought that hunting for bird fossils was a waste of time, because the strength of their bones, through leeching of minerals, etc was not thought of. Famous spots, such as the Klamath Basin, Anza Borrega Desert, LaBrea Tar Pits...Paleontology in general has really come a long way, at a time when it is failing in attracting grants and interest from the general public, but amazing things have been found...I work with people in the field and belong to Paleonet, most work is done in China, Russia, etc.

Are you against all avian population control measures or just those affecting swans? If so, why swans?

I'm president of a land trust, member of Brit. Ornithological Union, Waterfowl International, a RAMSAR associate (wetlands), British Animal Ecology, former v.p. of CT Federation of Lakes, started Corporate Friends of CT DEP, I avoid the big groups that have become industries focused on parties or making sweetheart deals for major benefactors. I am interested in ALL birds and live in a spot over a dam, so have quite a great view at all times of the year.

I do not keep a "life list," I am interested in their lives, not a fleeting glimpse. That is one very good thing about the swans, you get a view of their lives unavailable with most passerine...I have an enormous collection of books on birds and ecology sciences. I'm also a member of the Hakluyt Society, a group associated with The Explorers Club. It's a history buff's nirvana, focused on the early explorers and their journals. Hakluyt was a geographer who accompanied John White to Roanoke in 1585, a scientific exploration for Raleigh and his drawings of the flora and fauna are famous and document the presence of many birds and some animals and flowers.

There's one of a mute swan in the collection, attached.

I have to admit that you're correct when you say that most birders are most concerned with getting a "fleeting glimpse" of birds.

However, if you are concerned with the lives of all birds, and what the Audubon scientists are saying is correct (that mute swans habits are threatening the lives of other species), aren't some sort of control measures in order? What other ways could Connecticut keep swans other species living in harmony?

I'll send you the Michael Conover studies on Mute Swans in Connecticut [Ed. note: not sent]. They were quite extensive and show a very different picture from that presented by Audubon, National and local. Conover now works for the federal agency, in Utah or Idaho.

If loss of other birds were a factor, the State should not put out raptors, but especially hybrid raptors, like the Peregrine/Gyre falcons, hawks, owls, etc. especially in areas like Central Park, in Manhattan, where they have never been and have devastated the migrating birds.

The loss of birds is more about man than other birds. It is we who are destroying whole species.

Check out The Bay Journal and you will see major storms, over fishing, too many boats, dumping from chicken and hog farms, DuPont, Champion Paper and a dozen military facilities, all right on the Bay, are polluting it to death. This is not to mention the pollution from people.ΓΈ


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