Jeff Green | Mar 23, 2006
Back toHomeNature Reflections - March 23, 2006
The story of the Swans
by Jean Griffin
Before the pioneers arrived in America the Trumpeter Swans were found right across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. These large birds were heavily hunted and harassed, almost to extinction, for the skins and for personal use, until, in 1933, there were (according to the records) only 77 breeding in Canada and 50 in the United States . Now an intensive international conservation effort has restored the N.A. population to upwards of 16,000 and they are no longer considered to be in danger of extinction.
These birds were not seen in the Rideau Lakes for many years, but this changed in 1996 when an unmarked pair arrived and decided they liked the habitat. Where did these two come from? Most birds being bred in Ontario were banded and carried wing tags. It seems likely that these two arrived as immigrants from New York State north of Watertown where there had been breeding pairs for the previous couple of years. They built a nest, but no eggs or shells were ever found, and it is probable that they were not fully mature. When winter came they remained in the area, but someone shot the female. Conservationists brought in another female who bonded with the male, and in 1997 they nested and hatched two cygnets.
After successfully raising three cygnets in 1998, tragedy struck again when the female disappeared during the following winter and one cygnet died frozen in the ice, leaving an adult male, two subadults and one yearling. In an effort to produce a viable breeding population, two pairs of captive-raised swans were released on the Big Rideau the following summer. As well, another breeding pair was placed in a holding pen at the Mac Johnston Wildlife Area near Brockville , and there were more releases in the year 2000.
It is now apparent that the Trumpeter Swans have been reestablished to some degree on the Rideau Lakes and surrounding areas. Thus bird watchers have the chance to see these beautiful large birds during both winter and summer, and to hear their trumpeting calls. Males weigh up to 12 kg, and females about 10 kg. The adults with all white feathers (except for possible staining of the head and neck from feeding in iron rich areas) and with black legs and feet, can be confused only with other swans. Young have grayish plumage and yellowish feet and legs for their first year of life.
The other swans with which they may be confused are the Tundra (formerly called the Whistling) Swan, who in March and early April migrate through on their way to their breeding grounds in the Arctic . Tundra Swans usually have a small yellow patch in front of the eye, and if this is missing it can be difficult to distinguish the two species, though the shape of the bill is different, and the Trumpeter has a salmon-red line on the lower bill. The calls of the Tundra are higher in pitch - more like whistling as their previous name implies.
Just to confuse us further, the Mute Swan, a European bird imported into parks and zoos, has become rather well established at Presqu’ile Provincial Park and along the St. Lawrence. The adults of this species have a fairly conspicuous black knob on a black and orange bill. The Trumpeter Swans are the largest of the three species.
For a view of magnificent birds watch for all three species!