White’s Creek residents outraged over swans’ slaying

Residents living in communities surrounding White’s Creek in Ocean View and Millville this week declared their outrage over the killing of a pair of mute swans that many had come to consider pets.

The swans were shot and killed last week as part of the “mute swan management plan” operating under the Delaware Department of Natural Resources’ (DNREC’s) Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW).

Mute swans are a non-native species and are considered invasive, with the potential to drive off native species and do damage to vegetation that serves as habitat for native species.

A 2006 plan refers to mute swans as a concern for “degradation of wetlands from excessive herbivory and disturbance of wildlife by aggressive behavior,” though it also notes that minimal impacts to aquatic vegetation and nesting waterfowl and waterbirds had been recorded in Delaware so far. “But significant impacts have occurred nearby in Maryland.”

Rob Hossler, a wildlife biologist with DNREC’s Wildlife Section, said the removal of the pair of swans from the creek had been the result of two complaints – one in July 2010 and another this month, both from a neighboring property owner – that included claims of property damage by the birds.

“There is a law on the books that says you cannot possess or release mute swans into the wild,” Hossler emphasized.

He said Gary Clevenger, who formerly resided along White’s Creek, had at some point acquired a pair of swans – which then had three babies, called cygnets – and the swan family had been reported to DFW last year.

“We don’t want mute swans breeding in the inland bays,” Hossler said.

In response to the first complaint about the swans, Hossler said, DFW officials had met with members of the communities along White’s Creek and offered a compromise. Rather than destroying all five of the birds, DFW would grant a permit for the two adults to remain – providing they were collared and prevented from reproducing or leaving the area – and would destroy only the cygnets.

“That was not acceptable to the community,” Hossler said.

Subsequent to that meeting, before DFW could come back for the cygnets, the baby birds disappeared. In fact, Clevenger reported the missing baby swans to local media in late June 2010, concerned they had been removed or killed by predators, but Hossler said he was suspicious that someone had removed them to another location rather than have them killed as part of the management plan.

That appears to have been one of the issues that led to last week’s killing of the pair of adult mute swans that had been residing on White’s Creek since the summer of 2010.

“They didn’t do what they had promised,” Hossler emphasized, noting that Clevenger had additionally moved out of the White’s Creek area without informing DFW officials.

The two adult swans he had been permitted to keep disappeared from White’s Creek last summer, as well, and have since been seen living in the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge, where they remained collared as per Clevenger’s permit but with no caretaker apparent.

Second pair of swans were ones killed

Hossler said two new swans apparently moved in to the White’s Creek area last summer – a pair he suspects actually chased off the original, permitted pair. But, he emphasized, DFW officials were unsure whether the pair was the original permitted pair, somehow minus their collars; more birds that someone had acquired and released into the wild – contrary to state law; or ones that had naturally migrated into the area.

“We talked to the development about the swan situation, and no one shared with us that there were two more,” he said. “We heard two new ones had moved in, but we didn’t know if it was the same two. It was hard to believe the collars came off.”

Hossler expressed frustration with the situation.

“The goal was to have two there. That jumped to maximum of seven. The two collared swans had moved. We didn’t know if they came in naturally or were brought in, and we now had many more swans than what we had originally agreed to.”

He said DFW had subsequently located what they believe is the source of additional swans being released into the wild in the creek and was going to deal with that source.

Hossler said this week that DFW officials were “between a rock and a hard place” in relation to the swans.

“We have a law that says we’re going to control exotic, invasive species,” he said. “We had an individual complaining about them. We were most concerned about them reproducing.”

While Delaware is reported to have only about 40 mute swans across the entire state, Hossler said the concerns about their reproduction are strong.

“Maryland had 40 in 1976. Twenty years later, they had 4,000,” he noted. “In terms of population growth, it is a problem. We’re not the only state,” he emphasized. “Every single state in the Atlantic flyway is dealing with this.”

“We’ve been keeping this species under control,” Hossler said, “but we don’t know if they were brought in illegally or if we’re just starting to see reproduction.”

Those permitted to retain mute swans under a similar agreement to what was offered to Clevenger are supposed to “pinion” them – removing their flight feathers after every molt – to prevent them from flying away. They are also supposed to prevent reproduction and to ensure the swans have an assigned caretaker taking responsibility for them.

One of the few places in the state where the swans have been permitted to remain is at the Hilton in Christiana, where the swans’ owners opted to keep the cygnets and allowed DFW to “euthanize” the adults.

Hossler said he might be willing to issue another permit for mute swans to remain, under similar conditions.

“It would depend on the location,” he said. “In reality, we tried that, and the three cygnets disappeared. … Somebody took them. If we allow them somewhere else, we’d have to go in and remove the cygnets.

“I would be willing, if we thought the individual was responsible,” Hossler noted. “With the Hilton, I am 99 percent sure they are going to follow the intent of the permit. And I would be willing to do that again, if the situation was right.”

The situation in White’s Creek, Hossler indicated, was not one he was very likely to consider right.

“Nobody told us anything up front,” he said. “We were villainized from the first. We wanted to control them. If people had stepped up earlier… We didn’t know what the source was, and we thought they might have been purchased and released. The agreement was not to release others into the wild, and the person moved and released them into wild.”

Neighbors outraged at loss of pet birds

Bruce Wolford, who lives along the banks of White’s Creek near Route 26, said he was among many of his neighbors in at least three communities neighboring the waterway who had come to view the swans as pets.

“Everybody on White’s Creek on my development and across the creek made pets out of the birds,” he said Monday. “They went to everybody’s home. The kids, everybody fed them. And yet the State is saying they’re an invasive bird to the natural wetlands of Delaware and a threat.”

Wolford said the biggest objection he and his neighbors have to how the situation was handled is that they weren’t notified prior to the birds being killed and given time to find some way to save their lives.

“Everybody’s disgusted,” he said. “At least they could have an alternative, maybe. Put them out with somebody who’s got a pond,” he suggested, calling DFW’s action last week “cruel and unusual.”

“Everybody’s disgusted with DNREC,” he said.

Wolford said some of his neighbors hadn’t even heard about the swans’ slaying days afterward, though some had noticed they hadn’t been seen in a while. Wolford had been out of town last weekend and arrived home to devastating news.

“I was came home Monday morning, and my neighbor drove up and said, ‘Did you hear about the swans?’ I said, ‘You’re kidding! For what reason?’”

“All they had to do,” Wolford said, “was send a letter to the home owners associations, and I’m sure somebody would have stepped forward to get a permit.”

Barring that, Wolford said, the swans could have been relocated to a private pond or zoo, in Delaware or elsewhere.

“I have a friend out of state who said, ‘If the swans would have had a voice in this, they would have said, “We didn’t know we didn’t belong here, but you didn’t have to kill us for it.”’”

Wolford, who routinely fed the swans as they swam in the creek behind his home – and even coaxed them out of the water – said this week that he couldn’t believe the steps DFW had taken in the case.

“Pitbulls have more protection in Delaware than swans do,” he said. “I just think DNREC doesn’t have anything better to do this time of year.”

Hossler emphasized that DFW officials hadn’t gone out looking for swans but had needed to respond to the complaints by the neighbor.

Despite the problems and the law, he said, it is possible mute swans could once again live on White’s Creek.

“If those swans do return,” he said of the collared pair. “We’d entertain the option of permitting them. If they can control their reproduction, that may be an option.”

On the bottom line, Hossler said, the pair of swans killed this week may simply have gotten caught up in the pre-existing “swan situation” on White’s Creek.

“If I knew all the information… I’m always willing to consider additional information,” he said. “In this case, we didn’t know the situation and nobody was forthcoming.

“We went in and removed the swans with the hope that these other two birds will move back in,” he noted. “We’re not opposed to a pair of non-reproducing swans living there, and as long as we have a person who is going to be responsible for them… There was no one who was going to be responsible for these.”

Wolford begged to differ on that point. But for the pair of swans killed last week and the neighbors who enjoyed them, that question arose too late.

Point Publisher Susan Lyons, whose office window overlooks White’s Creek near Wolford’s home, is one of those who is mourning the loss.

“We’re going to miss them. They gave us all a lot of peace and joy,” she said.