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Mute swans are big, white, and beautiful. But in New York state, the Department of Environmental Conservation proposed to eliminate all wild mute swans by 2025. That drew protests, petitions, and comments on all sides. It divided birders and pitted some environmentalists against animal rights activists. As NPR's Margot Adler reports, that plan is now being rethought.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: First of all, mute swans are not exactly mute but they don't really honk. This is what they sound like according to the Audubon app on my cellphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWANS)

ADLER: I go out to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn with David Karopkin, founder of GooseWatch. He's a big defender of the swans. We come across 35 mute swans among Canada geese, mallards, seagulls.

DAVID KAROPKIN: I see an array of birds and other forms of wildlife, and they seem to be doing quite well and getting along with all of the other birds here.

ADLER: According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, mute swans are not native and they destroy and attack native species. That's a big reason why the DEC wants to see them eliminated. Amanda Rodewald is a director of conservation science at the lab of ornithology at Cornell University. She says mute swans have threatened least terns in Maryland, loons in Michigan.

AMANDA RODEWALD: We're worried about them in New York because of the black tern population that we have, which is a state endangered group where there only are few nesting colonies remaining.

ADLER: Mute swans eat and pull out large amounts of submerged aquatic vegetation, destroying food sources for other birds. But here's where it gets complicated. What makes a nonnative species invasive? Adam Welz, an ornithologist and filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn, told me European songbirds were introduced in America and they failed to take. But when a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts released 60 European starlings in Central Park in 1890, they multiplied into the millions, causing crop damage and all kinds of problems all over the United States.

ADAM WELZ: Most invasions, once they reach an explosive stage, are actually out of control. There's no way you can deal with them.

ADLER: So, one view toward invasive species would be, in Welz words...

WELZ: Nip them in the bud. That's a prudent strategy to follow in general with invasive species.

ADLER: Mute swans were probably brought over in the late 1800s from Europe or Asia. In the 1970s, there were 1,000 of them in New York; now, there are 2,200. But when the DEC studied the three places in New York where the swans are currently abundant, only one group, near Lake Ontario, is growing rapidly.

So critics, like GooseWatch's Karopkin, say how can you call that invasive.

KAROPKIN: The science is faulty, and it's weak at best.

ADLER: Adam Welz is no defender of mute swans. Just the other day, he saw a hungry mute swan approach a toddler.

WELZ: And the swan knocked the child over. I mean, no real harm done. He was just a little dusty and, you know, upset. But, you know, we know that swans can be very dangerous. I mean, a man was drowned two years ago in Illinois by a swan - killed by a swan, a full-grown man.

ADLER: But when looking at the DEC proposal, he says he wishes they had brought...

WELZ: A little more science to the party. There's a little bit of a tone deaf approach being taken by DEC, a little bit sort of legalistic.

ADLER: Other critics ask, why are we focused on 2,200 swans when there is so much natural habitat being destroyed by development? But Amanda Rodewald of Cornell disagrees. Yes, ecosystems are facing huge problems but we should act now before the swans are widespread.

RODEWALD: This is a situation where we can remove one of the threats, one of the stresses on these native ecosystems.

ADLER: But here's a problem. If you go into a city park here in May without a pair of binoculars, you may not see any of the more than 150 species of birds all around you. But the family taking their child to the park will see the swans and connect with them. They're big, you can see them, they're full of romantic associations.

David Karopkin of GooseWatch says swans are important in people's lives.

KAROPKIN: And it's not just because they're beautiful. It's because people value and respect life.

ADLER: But Amanda Rodewald thinks it's just difficult for most people to think about large ecosystems, populations and habitats. As she puts it...

RODEWALD: The submerged aquatic vegetation is inherently less charismatic than this beautiful swan.

ADLER: David Karopkin says it may be beauty that saves the swans but it won't save the countless other species that humans kill with impunity. Noting the thousands of comments and signatures on petitions, the DEC is revising its plan. They may decide to treat each area where the swans live differently, and they may include nonlethal means of control.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NATIVE NEW YORKER")

ODYSSEY: (Singing) ...win the applause. Oh. You're a native New Yorker. No opens the door for a native New Yorker.

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