More on Ontario’s Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

Over a century ago, hundreds of thousands of Trumpeter Swans ranged across North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, because their skins and feathers were greatly valued by European settlers, the swans were hunted and harassed to the point where, in 1933, the North American population hovered briefly on the edge of extinction, with only 77 breeding swans in Canada and 50 in the United States. The last known Trumpeter Swan in Ontario was shot in 1886 by a hunter at Long Point on Lake Erie. Although the inclusion of the Trumpeter Swan in the Migratory Birds Convention of 1916 helped prevent the population from sliding into extinction by putting an end to the hunting of this species, it remained absent from Ontario for many decades.

Almost 100 years after the last Trumpeter Swan was shot in Ontario, Harry Lumsden, a retired Ministry of Natural Resources biologist, established a program to restore these swans in the province.

In 1988, the first captive pair of Trumpeter Swans was brought to the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre. Although the female died of natural causes a year later, a second female was brought to the center, and in 1990, the pair became the parents of the first cygnets to hatch in Ontario in over 100 years. One of the cygnets was lost to a Snapping Turtle shortly after hatching, the but the other, a female nicknamed Pig Pen survived and raised the first known wild family of Trumpeter Swans 1993. (Her name is a play on words; not only did she have very messy eating habitats, “pen” is the word for a female swan.) She and her six offspring left Wye Marsh to spend the winter at LaSalle Park in Burlington, thus beginning a decades-long tradition. Trumpeter Swans historically wintered much further south, but as Pig Pen and her mate did not have wild parents to guide them to the swans’ former wintering grounds, this generational knowledge was lost and they flew south only as far as there was open water in which to feed. Pig Pen’s offspring went on to raise young, and they, too, brought their cygnets to LaSalle, a cycle that continues today with over 200 swans spending the winter there each year. For many seasons she brought the current year’s young to LaSalle, until she was hit by a speedboat then succumbed to pneumonia in 2001.

Trumpeter Swan Luther Marsh, May 2010

Untagged Trumpeter Swan
Luther Marsh, May 2010

The Ontario population was further increased when, in June 1993, 50 eggs were taken from wild nests near
Fairbanks, Alaska and artificially incubated. This resulted in 42 cygnets being raised for the purposes of a captive breeding program. The offspring of the captive swans were tagged and released into the wild at two years of age. Since the program’s inception 584 captive-reared birds have been released at over 50 sites, enabling the Trumpeter Swan population in Ontario to grow and become self-sustaining.

The restoration of these swans would have not have been possible without the generous assistance from many volunteers over the years, from the co-operators who raised the captive swans in the 1990s to the people today who actively monitor the population. Active monitoring is essential to the success of the reintroduction of the Trumpeter Swan to Ontario, since each healthy individual and breeding pair is extremely important in ensuring the continuation of a stable, increasing population. Volunteers band the swans and register tag numbers in order to identify them, track their nesting and migrating patterns, their mates and offspring, their longevity, and their health – since every individual is important, these volunteers also rescue those that have become injured or ill. Data from tagged bird sightings allows biologists to produce a genetic family tree and to record changes in the population and range.

It is interesting to read some of the history of some the swans. One famous swan, wing tag #L88 (“Magic”) hatched in the wild sometime before 2003. His mate, wing tag #100, was known as “Mrs. Magic” or “The Missus.” These swans raised their first known family on Gloucester Pool/Little Lake in 2005, and in January 2006 the family of five migrated naturally to LaSalle Park in Burlington, Ontario. Since then, Magic and The Missus have brought about 41 offspring to LaSalle Park in the winter to be tagged and banded. In 2012 six cygnets hatched in Gloucester Pool, although one received an injury to its beak after a presumed encounter with a Snapping Turtle. The injured cygnet became affectionately known as “Little Broke Beak”, and its parents protected it until October when it disappeared. A second one disappeared sometime afterward; only four cygnets flew to LaSalle for the winter. The last time the Magics brought their cygnets to LaSalle for the winter was in late 2013. Magic disappeared in late March 2014, and although volunteers kept checking the lake at Gloucester Pool, he did not return. The Missus remained at LaSalle until late April, and on May 10th her body was found at a Conservation Area in Woodbridge. In October 2014 the necropsy found high levels of lead in her bone, suggesting a high lifetime exposure to lead and lead poisoning as the cause of death.

Untagged Trumpeter Swans Luther Marsh 2010

Untagged Trumpeter Swans
Luther Marsh 2010

The oldest known wild swan in Ontario is known as Jet (wing tag A70), a female who will turn 23 this spring. Jet and her first mate Charlie (197) were the original pair that wintered in Bluffer’s Park in Scarborough, and they also raised a large progeny with 37 cygnets and 36 known grand-cygnets. Although Charlie had to be euthanized in 2010 after fish hooks caused irreparable nerve damage, Jet found a new mate whose gray spots indicated that he was no more than two years old. Jet and the new swan known as Ashton (wing tag L42) produced no young, and Jet was presumed dead when Ashton showed up at Bluffer’s Park alone in early winter 2014-15. However, later that winter Jet was photographed in Whitby Harbour with a new mate and a buffy brown cygnet during the winter swan census.

My interest in these swans started when I spotted the two tagged swans on Wrigley Lake outside of Cambridge. These swans do not regularly occur in the Ottawa area, although a pair has been seen sporadically on the Mississippi River near Carleton Place for the past two summers.

Trumpeter Swans Wrigley Lake, 2014

Trumpeter Swans
Wrigley Lake, 2014

I joined the Facebook Group Ontario Trumpeter Swans to submit my photos and ask the history of these birds. I was told that the female, E42, was hatched near Cambridge in 2008 and banded at LaSalle. Her parents are 142 and E20, who breed in the Cambridge area. M77 is an adult male who was tagged at LaSalle in March 2014. These two swans hung out together last winter at LaSalle, but disappeared during the summer. Aerial surveys showed a couple of pairs on private property in the Cambridge area over the summer, and it is likely they these swans were one of those pairs. The people on the Facebook group seemed happy to hear that these two were still together; perhaps next year they will raise their own young somewhere close by.

Trumpeter Swans Wrigley Lake, 2014

Trumpeter Swans
Wrigley Lake, 2014

Today, the Ontario population remains steady at about 800-1,000 individuals. Despite the initial success of the reintroduction program, the growth in population has slowed, and the swans have still not returned to the full range they formerly inhabited. Part of this is because the reintroduced swans are different from wild swans – many were raised in breeding programs and don’t know how to fully migrate. They require a wintering place with open water shallow enough to tip up to feed, and when food becomes scarce or the water freezes over they depend on volunteers to feed them. The disappearance of suitable wintering habitat in Ontario is one of the main factors limiting population growth in Ontario.

Lead poisoning is still a leading cause of death, despite the nationwide ban of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1997. Lead shot remains in lakes for a very long time, and swans ingest it because of its resemblance to the pebbles and small stones they require to grind food up in their gizzards. The lining of the gizzard becomes irritated, which allows the lead to enter the bloodstream and cause damage to red blood cell function, nervous tissue and kidneys. In time, if the weakened swan is not predated by another animal (which then suffers secondary lead poisoning), the upper digestive tract becomes paralyzed or impacted, and the swan eventually starves to death. Fortunately any swans that are suspected of having lead poisoning can be treated if caught, but treatment is expensive and many cases go unnoticed.

Still, the restoration of the Trumpeter Swan to Ontario is a success story. And although it hasn’t been an easy journey to get to where we are today, the story is far from over.

Tagged Trumpeter Swans can be reported on the Facebook Group Ontario Trumpeter Swans. Please include the date, detailed location or GPS coordinates, Wing Tag# or Leg Band #, Marked or Unmarked, and number of birds seen.

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