As a relative newcomer to life in the Bluffs, I am just getting used to the changes of season and the new sights that they bring. This winter I was delighted to discover the group of over-wintering Trumpeter Swans that inhabit Bluffer’s Park. At first, it took me a while to see the differences between them and the non-Native Mute Swans, but after much observation I came to be as enamoured with the Trumpeters as the people who are taking care of them.
After daily visits to see the swans, I met both Anne and Art who volunteer with the Ontario Trumpeter Swan Restoration Group. They would both come daily to feed the swans dried whole corn and bird seed, and watch over the birds to monitor their health and habits. The more time I spent down at the park, I began to notice the different personalities and characteristics that each swan had. Some were shy, some were pushy and some are showy. You may have noticed that many of the Trumpeters have bright yellow numbered tags on their wings, and metal bands around their ankles. I wanted to know more about the people who were tagging them, and why they were dong it. Anne connected me to Julie Kee, who is one of the head volunteers with the Group.
The Ontario Trumpeter Swan Restoration Group began as a companion group to the U.S. based Trumpeter Swan Society whose purpose and mandate has been to repopulate the Trumpeter across their original natural range. The last Trumpeter in Ontario was shot to death in the late 1800’s. In the early 1980’s, efforts began to be made to reintroduce Trumpeters. Harry Lumsden, a retired biologist from the Ministry of Natural Resources was able to secure some eggs and began the process of hatching and raising the cygnets. Harry, together with Bev and Ray Kingdon, started breeding the birds, then tagging and releasing them. The project has been extremely successful as there are now an estimated 1000 Trumpeters in Ontario. Julie Kee started working with swans as a teenager at Wye Marsh, and is now the primary volunteer who oversees the flock at LaSalle Park, the largest over-wintering group of Trumpeters in North America. LaSalle faces its own challenges at maintaining this hard fought for flock as there are developers eager to expand the marina there and cut into the swan’s habitat. Today, Julie, along with Kyna Intini and others are the main volunteers, and you can read about the swans that they watch over on their Facebook page.
Many people have asked about the feeding of the swans by the volunteers, and if that affects the locations the swans choose. There are a couple of different factors to consider. Firstly, since the swans are all products of a breeding program, they do not have the instinct or the learned flight paths of their traditional migratory routes. And, as Julie explains to me, the swans choose sites for several reasons, not just because they are being fed. The tend to still mostly eat algae and aquatic plants, and the biggest defining factor in them choosing a site is how gently the shore deepens, which gives them ample space to “tip” to reach their food sources. Also, how much or little ice forms on the water is another one of their main reasons for choosing a site. The project so far has been very successful, and there are indications that many of the swans are re-establishing new migratory routes, with some of the Ontario Trumpeters showing up as far away as Tennessee and Arkansas.
I was curious about how the wing tags were affixed, and Julie explained to me that it is a piercing through a flap of skin along their wings that does not contain many nerves or blood vessels. The highly visible tags allow the volunteers to track the swan’s locations from a distance, especially during breeding and nesting season when the swans become too rowdy to get close enough to look at their ankle bands. The wing tags last about 2 -4 years. A Trumpeter can live up to 30 years in the wild, and the matriarch at Bluffer’s Park is 21 years old. Many of the cygnets (young swans) and older swans you will see at the park are her descendants.
Since I have come to be very fond of these birds, I’d like to finish with a few tips on how to enjoy them. First of all, please refrain from feeding them any “human” food including bread, cookies, buns, pastries, rice, etc. It is not good for their digestive system, and can make them sick. People have worked very hard to bring these birds back from the brink of extinction and it would be good to keep them healthy and happy. Feeding the birds can be a lovely past time, and certainly many people come down to not only feed the swans, but many of the resident ducks and geese. Dried whole corn from a feed store or good quality bird seed can be a safe indulgence. Also, it is good to note that a full sized Trumpeter can weigh up to 30 pounds. They have been reported to break people’s arms, noses and collarbones with the force of their powerful wings. Have respect when you approach them, and watch for any aggressive behavior, which is usually aimed at another swan who is struggling for dominance. Never approach a swan who is on the nest, just let them be to raise more cygnets.
Bring your camera and binoculars! The best way to enjoy wildlife is from a distance, and the abundance of birds at Bluffer’s Park is a great way to sharpen your photography skills. Report sightings of any injuries to the Toronto Wildlife Centre, and one of their volunteers should be able to come down and rescue the animal provided they have enough information. Most of all, just get outside for the fresh air, exercise and beautiful sights of the Bluffs. The more we learn about the animals we share our spaces with, the more we can understand about their lives and how to protect and preserve their habitats.