We love our mute swans where I live at Lake Junaluska. They’re beautiful, elegant, courtly, graceful, handsome, and, yes, majestic.
Their white color represents purity and innocence. Because mute swans mate for life they’re often used as romantic symbols, popular at weddings and on Valentine’s Day. It’s said that when turkeys mate they envision swans.
Our Lake Junaluska swans are mute but not silent, just less noisy than other birds. It’s a myth that they’re silent until dying and then they sing. (That’s where we get our expression ‘swan song.’)
We have an ongoing battle at the lake among swans, swan lovers, and snapping turtles. Snapping turtles are cast as the number one enemy of the swans.
“They eat swan eggs! They eat young swans! They’ve even attacked grown swans! Rid the lake of snapping turtles! Besides, they’re ugly as homemade sin.”
A website, unaffiliated with Lake Junaluska (swanlovers.net), proclaims, “Snapping Turtles are NASTY BEASTS! Try to REMOVE THEM!”
At one time, turtle soup and turtle meat were standard fare on dining tables throughout the United States. However, due to lifestyle changes and a readily available supply of beef, pork, and poultry, the turtle is no longer relied on as a major food source. I do recall enjoying turtle meat on several occasions, though, during wildlife club meetings held at the AFG cabin on Boone Lake.
Despite my delight at the taste of turtle meat, Mr. Snapper, chief of our snapping turtle community, has approached me with a plea. Aware of my contrarian disposition and tendency to fight for the underdog, he has whispered that I should say a few words in defense of his clan.
It’s easy to say mean things about snapping turtles but difficult to talk badly about swans. So before committing to represent the turtle bale that calls Lake Junaluska home, I consulted Jeff Hall, biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.
I told Jeff one of the lake’s snapping turtles had grabbed a swan by the head and pulled it underwater, killing it. He asked if we were certain a snapping turtle had done it. Two other species of turtles live in Lake Junaluska: the spiney soft shell and the eastern painted. While the painted is too small to pull a swan underwater, a soft shell is quite capable of such mischief.
However, Jeff explains, a turtle wouldn’t purposefully attack a grown swan for food; he can’t chew so eats only what he can swallow. If a turtle had been the killer, it had likely mistaken the swan’s head for food while the swan was feeding on aquatic plants.
Much is made of the snapping turtle preying on swans, but snappers contend with predators too. Their eggs and hatchlings are eaten by herons, crows, raccoons, skunks, foxes, snakes, even predatory fish such as largemouth bass.
Jeff verified the ecological importance of snapping turtles. He describes them as an important higher tiered scavenger; they eat all manner of dead plant and animal matter including, fish, frogs, snakes, insects, and birds. Our mountain lakes and waterways wouldn’t be nearly as clean without them.
Snapping turtles are native to Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, while the mute swan is an invasive species imported from Europe in the mid-1880s as pets and to decorate parks and estates. A few escaped into the wild and successfully created wild breeding populations.
These wild populations have become serious problems in some areas of the United States. Mute swans can be aggressive and territorial, chasing off and sometimes killing other waterfowl and displacing native birds.
Mute swans require a significant amount of food due to their size, so they quickly outcompete other waterfowl for aquatic plants. At Lake Junaluska, this problem is somewhat mitigated by a swankeeper’s feeding of the 12 swans who currently live here. These swans are pinioned (wings clipped) so cannot fly away.
By all means, let’s enjoy mute swans in places where they’re present. But let’s also recognize the vital environmental role played by snapping turtles.
As Mr. Snapper might say: Remember, we’re the Native Americans; the mute swans are the Europeans. Please let us stay in our homeland.
After 57 years in the radio industry, Dave Hogan is enjoying his retirement in North Carolina. He’d love for you to say ‘howdy’ to him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.