Bill Britton, a member of Ducks Unlimited, personally wouldn't want to shoot a swan, but he knows people who have. "They said it was quite tasty," he said.

Tony Povilitis of the Humane Society doesn't understand why anyone would want to shoot the majestic and beautiful bird, a symbol of serenity that has been the subject of fables.

Today in Richmond, the Virginia Game and Wildlife Fisheries Department will hold a public hearing on whether to allow a third year of limited hunting of tundra swans.

As many as 100 people are expected to attend, including animal rights activists and hunting enthusiasts. In anticipation of a big crowd, the department has moved the hearing from its headquarters to a Richmond hotel.

"I don't know why people like one species of animal better than another," said Bud Bristow, director of Virginia's wildlife department. "I guess people romanticize about the ugly duckling turning into a swan . . . . We're surprised to see this level of opposition . . . . I've never seen anything like this."

Maryland game officials, while saying they support use of limited hunting to control overpopulation of tundra swans, nevertheless have not allowed shooting of their birds, estimated to number 20,000.

"We decided that it wasn't worth the potential negative public reaction," said Larry Hindman, manager of the migratory bird program for the Maryland Forest, Parks and Wildlife Service. "People see swans as graceful, exuding tranquility . . . . It becomes sociological question, more than a biological question."

According to Wayne Pacelle, director of the Fund for Animals, society has "a cultural bias toward some animals."

"This is one of them," said Pacelle, whose organization opposes Virginia's hunt. "People are offended at the very idea."

If approved, Virginia would issue 600 permits allowing each hunter to kill one swan. Last year, when the same number of permits was issued, hunters killed 126 tundra swans. During the hunting season, there were about 6,000 tundra swans in Virginia.

Virginia game officials say they began allowing limited hunting of swans three years ago as an experiment in managing the bird's growing population, particularly in areas where farmers reported that swans were eating crops or damaging oyster beds while rummaging in waterways for aquatic plants. Officials acknowledge that creating added recreation for hunters also was a reason for allowing the hunt.

Jerry Serie, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which authorizes hunting of tundra swans, said that about 90,000 tundra swans are expected to migrate from the frigid Arctic to parts of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania during the upcoming hunting season. That number is about 10,000 more than is ideal for the region, he said.

"The population exceeds the number prescribed in our management plan," said Serie. "We try to keep emotions out of decision making."

Pacelle of the Fund for Animals argued that the only reason Virginia game officials want to allow the hunting of swans is to please hunters. "A purely recreational hunt for such a cherished species is not necessary," he said.

Bill Sladen, an Antarctic explorer and head of the Swan Research Program in Airlie, Va., said state game officials have no scientific evidence to support the need for a hunt. He said no study of the bird's impact on its habitat has ever been done.

"They simply shouldn't be jaunting about allowing the shooting of a very special bird that they know nothing about," he said.