New Study Shows Mute Swans Are Native

By Kathryn Stillwell Burton

 In 2001, Federal Judge Emmett Sullivan, in United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit restored the mute swans to protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, with the words "Unless the federal agency can prove the mute swan is not a swan, then it is covered by the Act, which includes protection of members of the Anatidae family, to which this bird belongs." In fact, swans and eiders were singled out as not to be hunted or used in research. This has been blatantly ignored. Tundra swans are hunted, and there has been a "test" hunting season on trumpeters, barely reaching a number that should be deemed "Endangered," after seventy five years of management from a near extinction early in the 1930s.

There were many exhibits on both sides, including picture post cards more than a hundred years old, showing a bird that supposedly arrived on the east coast in the 1960s, according to agency people.

The win in court for the swans was really not a win, since the swans were now under federal control, rather than state. The United States Fish and Wildlife introduced a program of "removal," i.e. killings, almost as fast as the ink dried on the decision, and it started in Maryland and most of what is called The Atlantic Flyway, but it also ignited in other states where the state regulations did not protect those species. Connecticut protected the birds by statute, but the state agency found a way around that, by checking "no" on a federal form asking if the mute swans were protected in the state. That was not true,but influenced other states into signing on to the program.

Why the Mute Swans?

There were two charges made against the mute swans in states that adopted the program, (a.) the bird was thought to be non-native and (b.) the bird was taking up space and food "native" birds needed. At this time there were less than 18,000 mute swans on this continent. While more than 1,000,000 other waterfowl and shore birds go through the Chesapeake Bay annually, there were less than 4,000 mute swans in the 11,684 miles of coastline. Those two charges became one, when we realized that "native" birds can go where they like and eat what they like, because they are, well, native, as odd as that may seem to reasonable people.

Changing The Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Thousands of mute swans, out of an eastern population of 14,000 have been killed in just the last few years, after Wayne Gilchrest, a Congressman from Maryland, tagged a Bill to change the Migratory Bird Treaty Act onto the national debt, an omnibus Bill, with more than 5,000 special interest add-ons. Gilchrest's Bill sought to remove all protection for any bird thought to be non-native, no matter how long the species had been here, but it was very obvious the target was the mute swan. Without a vote, on the last day, in the last hour of the year 2004, the Bill passed.

Three thousand mute swans have been killed in Mr. Gilchrest's state, alone. Another thousand in Connecticut, another fifteen hundred in Wisconsin, Washington State has been killing them on sight for years, New Hampshire and Vermont, which had a total of fourteen mute swans statewide, removed them all.

Early American History

Since the mute swans were protected by English law and that law jumped the Atlantic, hunters could not legally shoot mute swans, in the early days of Canadian colonization. "Swans such as we have at home," was a phrase used by many early English colonists, in both Canada and the States,but none of the early painters painted swans until Audubon, who painted the Tundra and Trumpeter swans, but added, in his Birds of North America, "It is possible we have more than two species of swan within the limits of North America..." That single comment is very important and sent me on a search of the earlest drawings of America by European artists and there it was, in the drawings of John White, done in what was Virginia at the time, in the year 1585, before European colonization.

A book, The First Colonists, from the British Museum of Art, clearly shows a John White painting of a mute swan in Virginia in 1585, before European colonization anywhere in this country. That fact, alone, could prove the bird was native on this continent, something that has been disputed for, well, forever. The name under the picture, is Trumpeter Swan, given at the University of North Carolina in the 1960s, but the knob, the curved neck, the lifted rear feathers, all identify it as a mute swan. This discovery meets the criteria set by the agencies, that native birds must have gotten here "without the hand of man."

A quick call to the British Museum and several emails confirmed that the painting was done on watermarked paper, during the Raleigh exploration of 1585, meant to bring back scientific information, maps, geographical and topographical charts, lists and paintings of the flora and fauna to serve as an enticement to the English to colonize the New World.

A very important question was answered during email conversations with Kim Sloan,Curator of the John White Collection at the British Museum. The painting obviously shows a mute swan, seated on the water as they usually are, with an s-curved neck and with a knob on its bill, but the bill was black. Could it be a trumpeter swan? No, because they don't have a knob above their bill, nor anywhere else. However, the species was mislabeled at the University of North Carolina in the 1960s, published in books and never corrected, until now.

The answer was in the book's section on the method and coloring of all of the paintings and shows there was lead in the paints used and after four hundred years, the brilliant colors, including the reds and oranges, had degraded to black not only in the swan painting, but where brilliant colors were used, throughout the series. This is not unusual in very old paintings, according to conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Additional material from the Waterfowl and Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge, England, written by international experts, showed that the mute swans fly all over Europe and Asia with the other swan species, including to Far East Russia and the Russian Maritimes, across from Alaska. In fact, the whooper, bewick's and tundra swans all come across, to be taken as an oddity, or trophy birds. When the virus scare was headlined, it was shown that the mute swans came across, too. According to statements by Michael Cirianca, the mute swans come down from the Hudson's Bay area, across the Great Lakes and into the northern teir States.

Because the federal and local agencies in the States were obviously not open to new scientific findings favoring swans, except trumpeters and tundras, our search went on to Canada, having found a cooperative scientist who brought in a number of well known and respected professionals from museums and universities and the whole picture was almost completed.

Archeological finds in 1961-65 at the Fort Albany Post site on James Bay yielded mute swan materials in several sites and including a sternum, known to be the defining bone that identifies the various swan species. There was one that matched the mute swans.The sternum was housed in the Howard Savage Faunal Laboratory and more importantly, it was catalogued in Birds from the Ground, a study by Dr.Savage, MD,PhD zoologist/ornithologist and Douglas Sadler, who co-wrote the text and Dr.Rufus Churcher (now professor emeritus Paleontology, University of Toronto) all naming it a mute swan, dated 1679-1721.

So, now we have the mute swan in Virginia in the 1580s, in middle, uncolonized Canada in the 1600s, (and in fact wild mute swans still occur in that area.) But how could they have been missed over many later years? They are big birds, bright white, and like all swans, protective of their families. D.W.Dawson, head of the Canadian Geological Survey, as late as 1890 stated "almost a million miles of the Dominion (Canada) are for all practical purposes entirely unknown". A million miles, with many rivers, lakes, ponds, and no people, a swan's paradise. No wonder trumpeter swans were thought extinct, until men found them, in secluded areas of the northwest and Canada, which may ultimately be their downfall, too

After four hundred and forty two years, the mute swans should be given their papers. Sir Peter Scott said: "Swans are citizens of the world". S.Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian said: ""Only a fool would kill a swan, for to do so is to impinge on your birthright,to sully your natural surroundings, to scar your soul a little." There should no longer be a higher proof of nativeness for the mute swans. Their numbers have been reduced drastically, everywhere. You might have noticed.

Have questions about the mute swans? Email Kathryn Burton at

A full, three page bibliography and a copy of the nine page paper is free, just ask at the email address. We do not take donations, but can tell you how to reach people in the government who can help keep the last mute swans from being "removed."


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