Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 12, 2011

Newsmakers: Swan killer not yet identified


GREILICKVILLE — When David O'Connor sees a swan, he can't help but recall the holiday weekend his family witnessed a man taunt a family of swans then club the adult male waterfowl to death.

The Traverse City summer resident and his two young children were enjoying a day at the beach on West Grand Traverse Bay on July 3 when they witnessed the bird slaying. O'Connor dialed 911 and reported the incident to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' law enforcement division. DNR officials never identified the killer, despite a $2,500 reward cobbled together by concerned residents.

O'Connor said he doesn't often think about the incident, unless he sees a swan.

"I saw some swans not that long ago and I thought about it," O'Connor said. "Certainly, I'm not ever going to forget about it."

O'Connor and his children were at the beach on M-22 just north of Traverse City, in front of the Knights of Columbus hall between piers known as the gas dock and the Tall Ships dock. A personal watercraft with two riders rode within 20 feet of a family of swans that took shelter near a group of pilings near the gas dock. O'Connor said the driver appeared to purposely veer toward the swans. The male swan then took off after the watercraft and followed it for about 100 yards.

When the swan gave up the chase, the personal watercraft turned back and the driver egged on the swan, O'Connor said.

The man then headed over to a group of about a dozen people gathered in and around two boats tied up at slips on the Tall Ships dock. Then someone handed the man what witnesses identified as a boat hook. By then the rider had climbed off the personal watercraft and swam ashore.

The man again taunted the swan and lured it to within striking distance, O'Connor said.

"He took one swing at it, hit (it) in the head, and he killed it," O'Connor said shortly after the incident. "I'm a hunter ... but this, it was absolutely disgusting."

A conservation officer eventually showed up at the scene and identified the dead swan as a Mute. The following investigation appeared less than vigorous to O'Connor, who believes it was due to the type of swan.

Mute swans were a domestic bird imported from Europe. They are territorial and known to drive off native ducks and geese while overgrazing underwater plants. The DNR considers it a "nuisance" species and has employed various means of egg and nest destruction to control their population in Michigan.

"I think the initial reaction from the DNR was, 'Oh, well, one less swan we have to knock off,'" O'Connor said. "I think once the public knew about what happened, they tried. I think if they had done anything when we initially called they would have had a better chance of catching the guy."

Lt. David Shaw, chief of the DNR's northwestern Michigan law enforcement district, said agency officials made an effort to track down the swan killer.

"We talked to everyone extensively, including the boat owners, and they said they didn't know who that person was," Shaw said. "Some of the boat owners weren't even there at the time."

But Shaw noted it's puzzling that no one knew the watercraft driver, considering his passenger climbed off at the docks. He's also surprised the reward didn't generate tips. Rewards of that size usually are quite effective, he said.

Traverse City resident Jan Johnson led efforts to collect and post a $2,500 reward for information leading to the bird slayer's arrest and conviction.

The reward is still there, Johnson said, and she wants to dangle it a while longer. She believes something eventually may turn up to identify the killer.

"But pretty soon I'm going to have to contact the donors and ask if they want their money back or if they want to wait to see if loose lips sink ships," Johnson said. "I'd like to wait through next spring and summer, just in case."

Anyone with information about the incident may call the DNR's Cadillac office at 775-9727 and ask the operator for law enforcement, or call their tip line after hours or on weekends at (800) 292-7800.