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Spring 2001 Edition

Will We Adapt Our Practices to the Needs of Other Life?
by Sue Holloway

I was running across the street with my camera, when a mother and young son came out of the nearby market. "What do you see?" she asked, following. As I removed the lens cap, the little boy spotted the swans. We watched as the swans slowly dipped their heads under water in synchrony. They touched bills affectionately. The woman gasped as the white birds rose up, their bodies entirely out of the water, and danced in a semi-circle along the surface, bills touching. "We're so lucky we came here today."

The coming of the swans - here and elsewhere - is a relatively recent event in the natural history of the U.S. Swans had been nearly hunted out by the early 1900s, not only in North America, but also Europe and parts of Asia. It was the time of market gunning of birds in astronomical numbers. This devastating era inspired much of the current conservation movement for avians and their habitat.

Trumpeter swans, the largest, for example, were believed in the early twentieth century to be extinct in the continental U.S. And scientists don't know the history of what happened to mute swans, whose ancestors date back to the Pleistocene Era in western U.S. With fossils from Fossil Lake, one theory is that they flew across the Alaskan strait, from Russian breeding grounds. Until the swans were nearly extinct in large areas of Russia, as well.

In more recent times, mute swans were brought to the east coast from England, the Netherlands, and Poland. Some may have also moved across from the west or down from the north. Some experts date their living in the wild on the East coast back 150 years, recorded in art, in the Hudson School of painting. They also appear in a Courier and Ives lithograph of Carroll Island in Chesapeake Bay, produced in 1860.

Kathryn Burton of East Lyme, President of SaveOurSwansUSA, has reason to believe they were here much earlier. Her evidence is their presence in the earliest art produced by a European along the East coast, several hundred years ago.

Today, whatever their history, we celebrate their presence. As one swan drank, then lifted his bill upward so the water could slide down his long, S-shaped curved neck, the woman suddenly realized they were drinking salt water. "How do they do that?" she wondered.

Mute swans have a special gland that allows them to filter out the salt. It has adapted to salt water, while some swans, like trumpeters, require fresh water.

Her question reminded me how many adaptations swans have had to make - not just mute swans, but all species, world-wide. I recently attended an International Swan Symposium, held in Warrenton, Virginia. There, researchers from all over the world shared their concerns and findings.

Although populations have returned to more healthy proportions since World War II, feeding habitats have been altered tremendously, with the draining and filling of marshes and wetlands, mostly for agricultural purposes. It is not surprising that swans - and geese, too - are turning to agricultural fields, to feed. In Canada, the government compensates farmers for snow geese feeding in fields along traditional migratory routes.

Researchers reported at the Symposium that whooper swans in England are feeding mostly in fields - not only on winter wheat and spillage of soy, potatoes, etc, but also rape, a non-native grass planted for silage. Farmers there are also beginning to seek government subsidies. It seems a fair exchange, since original wetlands for feeding are mostly now fields.

cc-tundraswan.jpg (300220 bytes)Here in the U.S., tundra swans wintering along the Atlantic coast in the Chesapeake Bay have also turned from dwindling sources of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAVs) to feeding in fields. But the big surprise is their adapting in recent times to eating shellfish - an asiatic clam.

The soft-shelled clams also are staple diet of canvasback ducks, for which the Bay was once famous. A researcher from Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center, Mike Haramis, recently explained at an Atlantic Flyway Council meeting in New Hampshire, how the canvasbacks do this. They swallow the clams whole and grind them up in their gizzard. It is not an efficient way to feed, he noted. But it's what they've got these days - other than hand-outs of corn kept along the shore in fifty gallon drums by residents.

The birds are adapting to ever-shifting resources. Now that trumpeter swans are migrating down the west coast, in Washington they are also found feeding in farmers' fields. It has become a way of life for wild swans, although in parts of the United Kingdom and in U.S., mute swans remain aquatic feeders - in that respect, more shy of humans and their products than some swan species.

We were reminded of their wild nature, as the two swans in the Stony Creek cove suddenly raced across the water, feet slapping loudly, and took flight. Their distinctive "wingsong" vibrated the air as the birds disappeared out of sight, among the islands.

cc-stonycrkharbor.jpg (86423 bytes)In their wake, my eyes traced a line of stakes and boats. Soon this side of the town dock would be a cluttered highway of boats and docks. Our species, it seems, is colonizing the shoreline seaward, as it has the marshes. A few years ago, twenty osprey remained in that area for several days to fish as they migrated south. Dozens of people sat in a local park on the water and cheered, as the birds hovered in mid-air, then plunged dramatically below the surface to grasp a fish in their talons. In the past three years, there has been no such gathering.

Just as farmers, who did not consider who else used that land they were making more "productive," and now find flocks coming to their fields, boaters will find avian adaptations, as well. Their boats will become surfaces for herring gulls to break their shells, and roosting spots.

If we see more herring gulls than osprey or terns in this area during summer, we will know it is due to our own practices. With such awareness, perhaps we will learn to design our activities in ways that consider the needs of non-human companions, as well as our own.

Note: This is an adaptation of an article which originally appeared April 5, 2001, in The Source, The Sound, The Harbor News, and The Guilford Courier, on Connecticut's mid-shoreline. Reprinted with permission by Shorepublishing, Inc., Madison, CT

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