Mon 10 Nov 2008
West Marin provides wintering grounds for a variety of migrating birds, and one of the first to arrive each fall is the Golden-crowned sparrow.
This one showed up on the railing of my deck a couple weeks ago. Besides having a yellow stripe down the middle of its head, the Golden-crowned sparrow has a distinctive, three-note song. The best description I’ve heard of it comes from horsewoman Connie Berto: “Three Blind Mice sung in a minor key.”
Golden-crowned sparrows’ summer breeding grounds are in Alaska and British Columbia. The birds migrate south to Vancouver Island and the West Coast of the United States each winter.
Illegal migrants? I spotted these Mute swans a week ago on La Laguna, the small lake along Chileno Valley Road near Laguna School. These are part of a larger flock that included a few Trumpeter swans. Despite Mute swans’ beauty, Oregon and Washington, as well as some Midwestern and East Coast states, have begun trying to kill them off. It’s the US Interior Department’s white-deer and Drakes Bay-oyster scandals all over again: nativism masquerading as science.
As an organization called Save Our Swans notes, “In 2004 a nationwide program in the United States was announced that would reduce Mute swan populations by 85 percent, with the remaining swans to be pinioned, neutered and placed in parks. This caused an outrage by citizens and was fought in court….”
The Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service claims that Mute swans, which are smaller than Trumpeter swans, are non-native and eating up all the “native” swans’ food (mostly water plants, such as algae). But there’s no more evidence for this than there was for the Point Reyes National Seashore’s claim that white deer were out-competing blacktail deer for the park’s abundant forage.
Despite the nationwide policy of Fish and Wildlife, “the Mute Swan is protected in some states by state statute, for example, in Connecticut,” Save Our Swans reports. “Since swans eat algae, they can be very valuable in shallow bay areas, in rivers and ponds.”
Migrant swans in Chileno Valley, which was named after another group of migrants, Chilean ranchworkers.
Mute swans, moreover, are neither mute nor non-native. Save Our Swans explains that Mute swans are “circumboreal.” That is, they migrate around the far north, “including the Russian Maritimes and Kamchatka, a major staging area for millions of birds on migration to the American continent, a short distance away.”
Given their migration route, it is hardly surprising that cold weather sometimes forces migrating swans south to the Atlantic states, to the Upper Midwest, and on the West Coast as far south as California. Mute swans have been reported for centuries in what is now the United States. A 1585 scientific expedition on behalf of Sir Walter Raleigh brought back to England a detailed drawing of a Mute swan on the Atlantic shore.
In short, the Mute swan is a primarily Eurasian bird whose migration routes have always resulted in some members of the species living in the United States, where the Department of the Interior now wants to kill them off.
Meanwhile, “Trumpeter swans, native birds, have been ‘placed’ by wildlife management agencies — often in areas in which they never bred historically — to create a ‘trophy’ species for sportsmen,” Save Our Swans reports. “There has already been a trial hunting season on Trumpeter swans in the Pacific Flyway and suggested programs to expand the [current] program coast to coast.”
Like Tchaikovsky, I’ve always thought of killing swans as brutally misguided. If you agree, please check the Save Our Swans website to see how you can help stop this government-sponsored barbarity.