The History of Mute Swans in America and a Misinterpreted Past

By Kathryn Burton and Robert Alison,PhD

For many years, despite solid evidence to the contrary, the mute swan (Cygnus olor)has been called a non-native bird, imported from England. It is, in fact, an ancient circumboreal bird, with a history across Britain, Europe and Asia and into the Russian Maritimes and Kamchatka, a major staging area for millions of birds on migration across the American continent, a short distance from Alaska. (Dement’ev 1970, M.Weiloch 1992)

The mute swan circles the globe in certain latitudes for nesting and migration. A number of countries lay claim to the mute swan, adorning stamps and coins with its image, from China to Ireland. The United States agencies want to make it extinct, while Canada, a Treaty partner, has no such killing programs.

We hope to make obvious the role grant money plays in positions taken by organizations endorsing programs proposed by the federal agencies, without scientific basis or in conflict with scientific data and/or their own regulations.

These data suggest that an ancestral proto-mute swan or swans generated lineages over an extensive period of time, evolving locally and perhaps simultaneously in North America and Eurasia, shaped divergently by different local environmental pressures but nonetheless homotaxic.

How did anti-mute swan feelings develop? During the 1600s, many colonists came here from the British Isles. The presence of a “royal symbol” such as the mute swan, was not acceptable, especially in areas such as Hudson’s Bay, where some Scottish and Irish workers held a fierce resentment of the Crown. (Lindsay, 2003) It was illegal to kill a mute swan, protected by the king, punishable by fine or death, a law that reached into Canada (Churcher,2006).

It is not surprising then, that records at Hudson’s Bay Company do not mention species in their records of swan skins, using “probably most were trumpeter swans…” instead. However, a mute swan sternum was found in the area and recorded in a Royal Ontario Museum collection and a Trent University book (H.Savage and D.Sadler 2003). The sternum was dated mid-late 1600s, Ft.Albany, (pre-colonization). Documents produced in Hill v Norton, 2002 for the federal government’s argument, admit the movement of mute swans from that area of Canada into the United States, through the Great Lakes.(Cirianca, 2001)

While imports of mute swans have been documented, and expected, the probability of a “natural migration” (without the hand of man) at some long ago historic date becomes obvious. Fossils found in at least four states here in America and the 1600s specimen from Canada, prove that.

“The question is not would mute swans have come onto this continent?

but rather, why would they not?” (P.S.Martin, 2002)

Results of Mislabeling

This lack of voracity in dealing with the obvious puts the swans at a disadvantage in protection and evaluation of environmental impact. While agency people admit studies do not show extensive negative affects to habitat or surroundings, the very limited data is presented as representing a “potential” problem caused by the species. Normal bird behavior is seen as extreme, given as a reason for “removal” of the swans. Such activity is promoted by previously respected nature groups, such as Audubon and The Nature Conservancy. Both appear as experts, in Senate and House hearings on proposed USF&WS programs,

both are beneficiaries of large federal agency grants, from those very same agencies.

Avian Paleontology Record

Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene fossils ( 20 million to 10,000 years ago) discovered at various sites in the United States represent Cygnus paloregonus, a mute swan genotype found in Fossil Lake, Oregon in large numbers. These fossil swans were “very similar to, but somehow distinct”from Cygnus olor, the mute swan (Cope 1878) (Coues 1887) The distinction was primarily size. Later work hypothesised by Bergmann (1847) and proven in Baird’s extensive collection at the Smithsonian, provides a reason for the size difference within a species, dependent on a number of things, but primarily altitude, latitude, temperature, inland and coastal humidity (Lindsay, 1993)and of course food availability and climate extremes. This would account for a size difference in the same species of bird from modern United States and the Russia/Siberia coast in avian fossils.

Analogous Pleistocene fossil swan material was discovered at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. Pierce Brodkorb of the University of Florida described a specimen, later dubbed Olor hibbardi (Wilson Bulletin (1958) 7(3): pg.237). It is a mute swan homologue (Bickart 1990), (McDonald, 2001).

California studies have found additional Cygnus paloregonus fossils in the Anza-Borrego Desert (Jefferson,2005).

Arizona has yielded a late-Pleistocene fossil, very similar to the mute swan (Howard 1956, Bickart 1990), and called C.o. mariae. Mute-like fossil bones from the late Pliocene in Nebraska have been identified as Paracygnus plattensis (Short 1969)Fossil swans from different North American sites confirm a prehistoric presence of three lineages of North American mute swan homologues in the Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene.

Eventually, the North American genotype possibly went extinct. However, it could also be they “never went extinct, but became exceedingly rare and may have persisted in small pockets of unexplored parts of the continent” (E.Pielou,2001) This pattern also describes the history of another swan in America, a swan that was found with mute swans in Fossil Lake, Oregon, the trumpeter.


Wild mute swans currently occur in the area of Fort Albany (Abraham and Ross 2005), in habitats similar to those that were present there in the 17th Century. On July 16, 2004, a mute swan was seen on mudflats only a few miles from the site where the swan sternum was found by the Kenyon group (op.cit.).

The mute swan is circumboreal across much of Europe and Asia. Annual Reports from The Trumpeter Swan Society include mentions of Eurasian mute, Bewick’s, and whooper swans coming into Alaska.(W.Sladen, J. King 1978) The whooper swans also are known to arrive in the Aleutians (Eichholz and James,1997)Yosemite, Massachusetts on occasion, from Iceland, (Sutton,1962) another area in which the mute swans have a history.

At present, about 16, 000 mute swans occur in at least 21 states and three Canadian provinces. In northern latitudes all of the four swan species fly together on migration throughout Europe and Asia and Bewick’s, whooper and whistling (now tundra) swans have long been known to come into Alaska, with fatal results on Federal properties, according to the Trumpeter Swan Society reports. (W.Sladen, J. King 1978) It is not unlikely mute swans continued their ancient route, joining them in migration from Russia. It is very difficult for hunters to identify swan species, “in the midst,” as shown in

data collected on trumpeter losses during tundra swan hunting season in the Pacific Flyway.


The Migratory Birds Convention (MBC) (1916) is the primary authority for federal protection of migratory birds–the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is its enabling legislation. Mute swans were present and well known in North America when the MBC was fashioned, and had they not been intended for protection, the MBC would doubtless have so indicated.

Since ancestral mute swans were prehistoric inhabitants of North America, were here during early colonization in Canada as well as the United States (S.D.Ripley 1965) and information from the Trumpeter Swan Society papers indicates a movement of Eurasian mute swans into Alaska,(J.King,1968.) this would constitute a homecoming, through surviving kin, of a once-present genotype that became extinct or rare, into a former niche. This is rather like the restoration of Trumpeter swans by federal and state agencies, from stock bought from Dr. Blauuw, in Holland, (Herscheid1904) which the agencies view as “a homecoming.”

The Chesapeake Bay Problem

The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries cover 41,000,000 acres.

Of the more than 1,000,000 waterfowl that overwinter or pass through the Chesapeake Bay annually, no more than 3800 mute swans have ever been counted there, according to DNR estimates, 2004. Many of these are birds from inland states that move to open water from areas where lakes freeze in winters.

There is no comparison between high population waterfowl, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, (some of which were introduced by the agencies, for hunting,) and the mute swans, in such small numbers. The agencies create a difference, by suggesting the mute swan is non-native, based on junk or no science,as the Federal Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit found (2001,2003)

The mutes are accused of excessive eating of eelgrass, a submerged underwater plant. Eelgrass is sensitive to pollution, which raises water temperature, killing the grasses. Eelgrass needs salinity and light and is disturbed by trawlers, excessive boat traffic, and especially dumping of solid and liquids waste as well as non-point seeping of detritus from hog and chicken farms, as well as old septic systems and water treatment plants. This is where the focus should be, on the people who create these situations.

More than half of the waterfowl species on the Chesapeake and in the estuaries eat eelgrass. This has been historically proven and has been so for thousands of years. Then, too, there are cyclic world-wide losses of eelgrass, not influenced by the comparatively small number of mute swans, here and in other areas around the globe.

Nonetheless, anti-mute swan sentiment pervades state, provincial and federal government wildlife management agency agendas, based on the preconception that these birds are non native, and not deserving of Bay grasses.The Maryland state DNR goes to extremes in its efforts to justify this, suggesting that mute swans take the habitat of terns, which is ridiculous. Terns nest on pebbles, swans in reeds. The one case continually sited supposedly took place thirty years ago and it was a “flock” of six terns, noted by one agency man, undocumented and questionable.

The trumpeter swan is admittedly the more aggressive bird (L. Gillette, 1988)(J.Johnson,1988)(C.Lueck 1989) yet in 1991 the state of Washington placed mute swans on the deleterious exotic wildlife list and removed them from the wild, because of a perceived threat to other waterfowl (D. Kraege 1991) Again, this is not to say that aggression is not caused by unnatural situations created by man. Placing birds where they are exposed to “management” exacerbates the situation. Allowing jet skiers to harass any waterfowl is outrageous, even if the boaters do pay for licenses. In the case of the mute swan, again the mistaken label of non-native is used to justify illegal behavior. The agencies are supposed to protect wildlife, not humans breaking the law. The response from the birds is a natural one and is not limited to this species.

One must ask, how the mute swan, a bird regarded as aggressive in the United States, has throughout a large part of the world, gained a reputation and symbolized peace and serenity for more than a thousand years, been placed in parks where children feed them, and are seen on coins and stamps.

This singling out and creating a “royal bird” however, has played a negative role and a resentment, often shown in abusive treatment of these birds that continues to this day, among individuals who resent the symbolism, created by man, not the bird.

Regardless, a federal ad hoc policy eventually took shape in which mute swans were considered exotics, managed as if unprotected by the MBTA. On December 28, 2001, the US DC Court of Appeals (Hill v Norton)ruled that the MBTA term “Anatidae, or waterfowl, including ducks, geese and swans” incorporates all swans in North America, including mutes. In April 2004, pressure arose from Maryland, Michigan, Wisconsin and Rhode Island, all promoting the “placement” of trumpeter swans as an ultimate hunting trophy bird, to amend the MBTA to exclude mute swans. In November of that year, the “Migratory Bird Treat Reform Act” came into being, appended to an Omnibus spending Bill, without House or Senate votes, a maneuver Senator Lieberman and Congressman Simmons said “was illegal.” In 2005, the mute swan was officially delisted.

The Lewis and Clark Connection

Lewis and Clark were asked by Thomas Jefferson to collect a pair of trumpeter swans during their journey. During the first part of the Expedition swans were noted in the geological journal thirteen times, eaten, in fact, and yet there was no mention of species or excitement noted until the return trip, at the base of the Columbia River, where they found trumpeters and tundras.

The swans they saw at Fourth of July Creek, in the Kansas-Missouri area, on July 4 -7 1804, would not have been either trumpeter or whistling swans (now called tundras), who would be in the northern latitudes, nesting. Both the trumpeter and tundra swans migrate north in April/May to their nesting grounds.

Ornithologists identify bird species often by pattern of behavior, the primary one being migration. What species of swan would be in that area at that time? Possibly mute swans, hidden in the relatively undeveloped countryside, just as trumpeters were, in the vastness of the northwest, parts of Canada and Alaska, before they were “rediscovered.” Migration routes are often shown to be millions of years old.

Flightless swans were reported by P. Jacques Marquette in June 1673 in the Upper Mississippi area, beyond the historic breeding range of the trumpeter or tundra swans (Thwaites 1959). Adult swans were mentioned at Lake Erie by Hennepin (1698), outside the probable breeding range of trumpeters or tundras (Bellrose 1976). According to Father Joseph Jouvency (Thwaites 1959), swans which he identified as “olores” were breeding near Cabot Strait, Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1610, in areas in which neither tundra nor trumpeter or tundra swans ever bred.

Discussion and conclusions

Convincing paleontological evidence confirms,there is no doubt that several proto-mute lineages were indigenous to the continent. The North American mute swan homologues were indigenous and native, arrested genotypes whose development ended prematurely, or became much diminished in number,along with other faunal victims of the so-called phenomenon of Pleistocene Extinction (Savage, They easiky could have originated in the Kamchatka, Russia/Siberian Maritime and joined the other swan species in migration to the American continent. Some Eurasian vagrant mutes have naturally pioneered into North America in recent time, as both tundra swans (whistling and Bewick’s) and whooper swans have also been documented to do, in Trumpeter Swan Society Papers (W.Sladen 1978) (J.King 1978) The Tundra swans regularly migrate from the Sea of Okhatsk

There is implicative historical information suggesting mutes were present in North America in early colonial times (S.D.Ripley,Smithsonian) All pertinent items of evidence coalesce into a scenario suggestive that mutes were part of North American avifaunal evolutionary history.

It is indisputable that mute swans were present in the early 20th Century in North America, when the MBC and MBTA were being drafted and ratified. It would be extremely unlikely that the formulators of

thosedocuments were unaware that mutes swans were present in North America at that time. Failure of the

MBC to specifically exclude mute swans from its protective provisions suggests the authors did not intend for them to be excluded, because they were here. In fact, in the MBTA, swans and eiders were separated out and taking them through hunting or for medical research was deemed illegal.

Although, in the United States, the de-listing of mute swans has resulted in the killing of swans, as state-initiated programs, the Canadian Wildlife Service considers the birds to be fully protected in Canada. Only in British Columbia has a local removal been conducted, and that was in conjunction with a trumpeter swan reintroduction project, as is being done here in the United Sates, to our shame.

” Swans are citizens of the World” said Peter Scott, in Swans of the World (1972)

Bibliography available on request at

Source by Kathryn Stillwell Burton