West Tisbury selectmen hear appeal to protect swans

Swans, an invasive species, have become a part of the Mill Pond landscape. — Photo by Michael Cummo

West Tisbury animal control officer Joan Jenkinson asked selectmen last week for their support to put a gate and fencing between the Mill Pond shoreline at the entrance of the Allen M. Look Memorial Park and the old police station building on the West Tisbury-Edgartown Road to protect wandering swans that have taken up residence at the pond.

Well-known for her tender and caring attention to all animals and wildlife, Ms. Jenkinson regularly feeds the swans and ducks that congregate on the scenic pond. In general, wildlife officials discourage feeding waterfowl for the dependency it creates on human handouts.

Ms. Jenkinson told selectmen last Wednesday that the gate would help keep swans and ducks from wandering out onto the road but also allow access for visitors.  “Now that the police station isn’t there, cars go faster than they ever did,” she said. “I would like some support on this because I and the police have had to pick up dead swans and dead ducks.”

Ms. Jenkinson is primarily concerned about one young swan, which she named Rocky, that is recovering from the bite of a snapping turtle. She took the swan to a veterinarian for surgery in August.  “I don’t want him going out into the road,” she said. “He is like a baby. He will fly away some day. I’m there twice a day and he waits for me right by the road.”

Ms. Jenkinson said that she and her husband, Pat, would pay for the materials and that Pat has volunteered to do the work.

Selectman Cynthia Mitchell and Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter agreed that ducks on the road are sometimes a problem. Mr. Manter said the town should pay for the gate, not the Jenkinsons. Selectman Richard Knabel said that he would not want a gate to keep people from using the park.

Selectmen said the gate proposal should be brought up before the Conservation Commission and the Historic District Commission before a decision is made.

Live pond

Ms. Jenkinson told The Times in a phone conversation that she feeds the swans and ducks that congregate on the pond at least twice a day, and that she is sometimes at the pond four times a day to check on Rocky. Volunteers fill in for her when she is away.

Although the waterfowl come to the edge of the pond when they see her car, she does not think she contributes to the traffic mortality problem. “The ducks would cross the road anyway to get to the Mill stream and Tisbury Great Pond,” she said.

Ms. Jenkinson said the feedings contribute to the scenic nature of the pond, which is created by a dam.  “If I didn’t feed them the swans wouldn’t be there,” she said. “We would have a dead pond. This is the entry point for the town. We don’t want a dead pond.”

She said she did not think the risk of wildlife dependency was an issue because she does not feed the waterfowl everything they need and they are still wild.

Ms. Mitchell told The Times that selectmen have not discussed the issue of feeding the ducks and swans at Mill Pond. “I have not given it any thought, not that it shouldn’t be discussed, necessarily,” she said. “The general sentiment is that it is kind of nice that Joan is doing it. No one in recent memory has ever objected to it. Not that there aren’t objections to be made.”

Ms. Mitchell said that the selectmen do not consider the feedings to be part of her job. “She and her husband, Pat, have gone over and beyond her job, especially taking care of the injured swan. It is a kind and wonderful thing. Her love of animals is one of the things that distinguishes her as an animal control officer.”

Misguided compassion

Birder and naturalist Matthew Pelikan, who writes a regular column for The Times about Island ecology, said the swans that have become a fixture of the Mill Pond landscape are mute swans, an introduced, non-native, species that competes very aggressively against native waterfowl for nesting real estate.

“Swans also feed heavily on submerged vegetation,” he said in an email to The Times. “Between their size and their long necks, which mean they eat a lot and can feed in deep water, they can damage populations of underwater plants, create opportunities for undesirable plant species to get established, and contribute to problems such as fecal contamination and loss of water clarity due to suspended sediment.”

Mr. Pelikan said that actively encouraging the local swan population “doesn’t make much sense ecologically.” He pointed out that many states and municipalities in the Northeast are taking measures to control mute swan populations. “In particular, given the evident concern in West Tisbury about the health of the Mill Pond, encouraging a mute swan population there is a puzzling course of action,” he said.

Mr. Pelikan said feeding waterfowl, a practice banned in neighboring Rhode Island, “accustoms the birds to viewing humans as a resource, which can lead to problematic behavior such as aggression toward humans and it encourages the waterfowl to congregate at much higher density than they normally would, and in different places, altering their social interactions, facilitating the spread of disease, and increasing their local impact on vegetation.”

Decisions like the those concerning the Mill Pond are made often on an emotional rather than a rational basis, Mr. Pelikan said, adding that while he respects the compassion that is behind efforts to protect one swan, encouraging the persistence of swans around the pond is “a misguided approach.”