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Swan Song

Photo by Christina Santucci

A few weeks after Hurricane Sandy pulverized the Rockaways, one of the superstorm’s survivors planted himself in the road next to Jamaica Bay in the eastern part of the peninsula. The large and elegant creature stopped a passing car and demanded attention. He was hungry and wanted a ride, even if that meant hopping into the vehicle with another species.

The traveler was a member of the mute swan population, which has just been granted a reprieve from eradication by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The bird was traveling alone without a mate but had a flotilla of ducks in the water behind him as he approached.

This was a year and a half before state wildlife officials declared that the graceful birds were an environmental menace, posing a threat to the native bird population and people. The Audubon Society was reported to be considering backing the state initiative in the interest of protecting other avian groups and preserving the native habitat for the animals that predate the long-necked waterfowl.

Conservationists and bird watchers mostly supported the DEC proposal to eliminate the 2,200 mute swans in the state by 2025. But animal rights activists and some residents of New York City were outraged by the plan and swamped the DEC with nearly 40,000 protest letters as well as petitions.

The DEC, apparently unprepared for the outcry unleashed by its proposals to rid the state of the descendants of swans imported from England in the 1800s as trophies for the rich, is now exploring non-lethal means to control the population.

This is a tough balancing act for the agency, which must weigh the views of wildlife specialists against public opinion, which generally embraces the graceful swans who mate for life as a romantic symbol of fidelity.

Unlike Long Island and other parts of the state, Queens has small colonies of mute swans. DEC will hold another public comment period this spring after it draws up a new plan to control the growing swan numbers. We oppose any orchestrated die-off by gun or gas but are open to supporting non-violent means of population control.

Back in the Rockaways, the swan that had lived through high winds and treacherous flooding was undaunted. He exhibited the grit shown by many peninsula residents who vowed to rebuild after the monster storm.

We hope he and his bevy of birds will be allowed to roam freely in Jamaica Bay and other spots in Queens as a reminder that wildlife still has a place in the city.

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