Why Do You Hunters Kill Swan?

Author's "hero shot" drew him a disdainful look from a likely member of the Swan Society and inspired this post.

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 As I was attempting to use the self timer on my camera to take what in the trade is known as a “hero shot” with my 2011-12 swan in front of the Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge sign, a small eco-friendly car with a swan license plate on the front drove up and stopped.  The lady driver sat in her car and took a photo of  my swan and muzzleloading shotgun. As she was preparing to drive away I waved and she gave me a dismissive look and wave off  such as one might bestow  upon a child who had done something  distasteful, but knew no better.  She made it quite clear that she did not want to talk to me.

  As she was obviously very interested in swan, we actually had more common ground than she might have thought. I suspect that her passion about these birds has resulted in her being a member of the Swan Society whose members follow with considerable interest the annual migration of the various swan species from the Arctic to their wintering grounds in the U.S. Those in the Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina, area are legally termed Tundra Swan, but are biologically perhaps more correctly called the Whistling Swan, compared to the Trumpeter Swan, which is an endangered species restricted to the Western Flyway.

Hunters with an age-range of swan. Lake Mattamuskeet, 2012. Note orange tags on legs of each bird.

 A limited harvest of Tundra swan is permitted in North Carolina and Virginia and in a scattering of Western states during their Fall migration. This is done by permit only with the number of permits depending on the annual swan reproduction. The biological objective is to keep swan numbers in check so that they do not overstress their nesting  or wintering environments. These large fowl eat a lot and can deprive other migrating species, such as ducks, of food. Before their was a season, North Carolina guides referred to them as “Sky Carp” because they consumed much of the plantings done  for ducks and geese.

When I hunt swan in late December and early January they have been in the state for about a month and have been fattening on corn, soybeans and other field crops. This diet makes  them the best eating of all waterfowl. Those taken from alkali lakes of the Desert Southwest are not nearly as tasty.  When I have one, I often have a swan for my Thanksgiving or Christmas meal.  Unlike turkey, swan meat is dark because of the many blood vessels used to drive those powerful wings. When properly cooked, it tastes like a very good roast beef.

Why kill swan?

  1. Population management is the primary objective that most federal and state wildlife agencies will cite for maintaining an annual swan harvest. Each hunter who draws one of the limited number of tags has the chance of taking  only one bird per season, and must report the results of his hunt whether he went or not, any bands recovered, etc. The penalty for taking an illegal bird may include fines of between $500 and $1000 and might also mean confiscation of the firearm, vehicle, boat and  gear associated with the hunt.

2. The challenge  is to attempt to take one of these magnificent fowl cleanly with one shot. Using muzzleloading guns, which are slow to reload and most often only have a single shot, puts an additional burden on me, which I accept as part of the hunting experience. Over the years I have taken a number of swan and often, but not always, killed them with a single shot.  To be effective, this shot must be at the yard-long head and neck of the bird.  As I have most often have only one shot opportunity at the time, I am careful to try for only close-range birds and, in addition, must keep all of my shooting components dry. By the time I hunt swan,  I have used that gun and load for the entire hunting season and know it very well.  The best advice that I can give any swan hunter is to know your gun and exactly where you must point it to get a good killing pattern on your bird. Some heavy waterfowl loads can shoot a foot or more below the point of aim.

Thompson/Center Arms Mountain Magnum 12-gauge muzzleloading shotgun that the author used to kill his swan.

An episode of my radio show, Hovey’s Outdoor Adventures, broadcast on January 9, 2012, presented hunts from  a public blind at Lake Mattamuskeet and also a shoot in an agricultural field about 15 miles from the lake. On the field shoot some of the cartridge-gun shooters struggled to take their birds. I killed my swan with a single shot from my Thompson/Center Arms Mountain Magnum 12-gauge shotgun using 100 grains of Hodgdon’s Triple Seven powder, a 1/4-inch hard cardboard over powder wad, 20 grains of Cream of Wheat, a red Winchester plastic wad for 1 1/4-ounces of shot, about 1 3/8 oz. of  no. 4 HeviShot (a tungsten iron non-toxic mix that is heavier than lead) sealed in the barrel with two thin over-shot cards.

  This single shot ended my hunt. I am not always so fortunate and had missed a swan the day before by apparently letting the eye guide me to shoot between a pair of approaching birds, rather than picking out one and killing it. Wingshooting, even on huge fowl like swan, is never a sure thing in hunting situations; as was abundantly illustrated on my radio broadcast.

 The previous discussion covered the mechanics of swan shooting, but more challenges to the hunt are to arrive with all of the gear you need, physically make something of a trek out to your blind location (particularly at Bodie Island on the Cape Hatteras National Wildlife Refuge where you may walk through a mile of flooded marsh to your blind) and put up with severe weather conditions during your hunt. This year was quite warm, whereas two years ago every small pond was  frozen solid and only the largest part of the lake and the salt-water Pamlico Sound had open water. (You can see a video of this hunt by clicking on the following link: http://youtu.be/BCPjQOBr7aI.) Walking through flooded marshes and operating boats under these conditions can be quite interesting. This year some hunters sank a 19-foot boat in the sound when waves crashed over the rear of it, flooded it, pulled it off  the bank and sunk it in 15 feet (or more) of water. Fortunately, the three hunters were rescued.

Swan ready to go into the oven.

3. Swan are excellent on the table. During past centuries it was a hanging offence to be caught eating a swan in England, as these birds were reserved for the Royal table. In North America these birds have been eaten since colonial times. When they have been on good feed they are excellent with the younger gray birds being better than the older ones, as is typical with any fowl. For best results swan need to be plucked and cooked in moisture.

4. Swan hunting provides a much-needed income boost to area residents who live in an impoverished part of coastal North Carolina.  Hyde County, the location of Lake Mattamuskeet, does have large-scale agriculture in areas that are dry enough to farm; but much of the area is undeveloped marsh and forests. The county’s population is only about 8,000 with the principal non-agricultural employers being county government,  a prison and the school system.  The Fall waterfowl hunting season provides a  boost to the economy by filling motels, restaurants and giving local merchants some needed trade.

5. Human interactions are also part of the swan hunting experience. These include running into other hunters, (as I did and unexpectedly joined two different groups on their hunts), interacting with local residents and even, in my case, attempting to give the area a boost through my radio show. When you and others are facing the same challenges there is a bonding between like-minded people that, although temporary, can be quite strong. You come to care about each other and each other’s problems and challenges.

6. Fun is a word that has thus far been absent from this discussion. Where does it come in? Killing an animal, as an act, brings a complex series of emotions. There is an elation that you have struggled to accomplish something and have successfully completed it. There is often “Ha-Ha” humor in the sometime completely ridiculous situations that hunters get themselves into that is easily understood and shared with other hunters. These experiences ultimately related to story telling, that can get so extreme  and enjoyable that it actually interferes with the ongoing hunt. (You cannot put two talkers in a turkey blind together, for example, because they will never stop yacking long enough to get their bird.)

 Killing a swan, to me, is no more enjoyable an act than slaughtering a pig at a “hog killing.”  I have seen, and dealt, sufficient death in my life to say that I  appreciate life and take it only when I am going to make use of  the animal. To me the highest value that an animal has, even a swan,  is to provide food for the hunter’s family. I have trophy heads on my wall, but I am more interested in shooting meat rather than horns. The best trophies, the most long-lasting ones, are trophies of the mind rather than horns on the wall.

  So where does that leave me and “the swan lady.” I think it is a safe assumption to say that we both respect these native North American birds and wish them, and their kind well. My enthusiasm does not extend to the  imported European mute swan or Australian black swan, which are now wild breeding populations. Mute swan by the thousands are now causing problems in a number of states and are even mixing with migrating populations of swan that winter in North Carolina. Control measures are now being conducted on these populations. Often the best, and least expensive, measure of control is to open a hunting season on them and consume them. In these hard economic times and in a country, and world, where millions are going hungry, there is no reason for not utilizing these exotic swan as a food source. If they were good enough for European Royals, I think that they are good enough for us too.

Christmas dinner featuring swan, swan dressing and giblet gravy.

 More on swan and other hunts may be found on my website www.hoveysmith.com and in my forthcoming book, X-Treme Muzzleloading. The website is the key place for accessing my books, videos and products. The best links to my blogs is at the very bottom of the website page.

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7 thoughts on “Why Do You Hunters Kill Swan?

  1. I was googling why people hunt swans, and what a nice surprise in the top search results, your blog and the first photo that came up. It’s not very often that google leads me to Hyde County.
    I grew up in the small town of Swan Quarter and have spent many sunny days at the Mattamuskeet lake. So you would think that I would know the answer already, but my fun times at the lake were not during hunting season. Fishing or crabbing with chicken wing & a string maybe, but I’m no hunter. So thanks for answering my question 🙂

    • I try to make it up there when I am fortunate enough to draw a swan permit. I usually stay in Fairfield, rather than Swan Quarter. This year I was short on time and only hunted with my blunderbuss on Bodie Island in Dare County. For the past two years I have done radio shows in connection with these hunts. The most recent will air starting the second week in February, 2013.

  2. Good post. We were wondering why people killed swans in this day and age. As a city person from the Piedmont, I had no idea about their migration patterns or the historical reliance on these birds for winter hunting. Thanks for the in-depth article.

    • We had a pair of swans (what type I have no idea) in our local area near a busy road. One day while crossing one of the swans was hit by a car and killed. The other, it’s mate, stood in the road for hours grieving it’s death, refusing to leave its side blocking traffic and nearly being hit itself many times. It had no desire for self preservation, so lost in grief.
      Only when the body of its mate was moved to a parking lot on the side of the road would the swan leave the road. Fish and wildlife had to come physically remove the swan.
      I have never seen an animal grieve like that, it was physically painful to watch.
      So while I understand the purpose of population control, I’m with the swan lady looking sadly at someone holding a beautiful majestic bird as a trophy.

  3. Why would we need to use swan as a good feeding source when we have plenty of food to feed the millions starving but choose to give it to our livestock and fatten them up beyond the norm and deprive the starving. We also take the land to use for less fortunate people and use it for more animals to harvest. Many don’t know that and pretend we’re doing all this other killing to feed the hungry. This is not true. Again, we have plenty of food for the world but greed has caused us to turn away and uncomfortably full our cows, pigs and chickens massive amounts and let humans unable to help their problem which is out of sight for most of us so out of mind

  4. Shooting a swan sounds like something that a person of low intellect would do. Probably the same people that keep 10 rusted, non-functional vehicles in a junky-looking front yard.

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