I was stopped in my tracks whilst walking last week as a flock of “honking” trumpeter swans flew overhead in a perfect V formation.
Each year the arrival of these magnificent birds heralds the onset of winter, and their departure in mid-April signals the arrival of spring. First identified in 1850 in Alaska, trumpeter swans are the largest waterfowl found in North America.
The “cobs” or male swans measure 1.8 metres from tail to beak, with a wingspan of three metres and weighing 12.7 kilograms. The smaller “pen” or female weigh an average of 10 kg.
Unlike domesticated “mute” swans that have orange beaks, the trumpeter swans have black beaks, legs and feet. Trumpeter swans mate for life and are spectacular to watch especially in the spring when they perform their mating rituals, which include balletic dances.
Adult swans have white plumage; juvenile swans have grey plumage. Their legs and feet are a brownish yellow and their beaks are pink. Sometimes their heads will be tinged with orange from the minerals in the water they forage in.
Once hunted for their feathers and hides that were prized for hats, boas and other fashionable goods, they also provided valuable food.
The Migratory Bird Act was put into place in 1918, which put an end to swan hunting; in 1932 their numbers were reduced to a mere 69 birds. As a result of the restrictions of swan hunting their numbers have continued to improve and in 2008 populations were estimated to be at 16,000.
Last year between Dec. 6 and Feb. 24, an average of 2,300 swans were counted on a weekly basis by Comox Valley Naturalists swan monitors. This society has been monitoring the swans with a weekly count every Tuesday, as part of the Comox valley Waterfowl Management Program to manage the swans on local farmland.
According to the naturalists, swans can rival cows for daily food consumption on farmlands.
The West Coast winter swan habitat ranges from Sumas and northwest Washington and Vancouver as well as the east coasts of central and southern Vancouver Island. Northern B.C. and Alaska provide their breeding and summer habitat.
During their winter stay in the Comox Valley and parts of Campbell River, they dine on a variety of field crops including, hay, corn, perennial grasses, seeds and tubers including marsh and wetland vegetation.
Habitats for our local swan populations include agricultural farmland, wetlands and estuaries — also the shallow waters around Goose Spit.
Arriving at their winter grounds with the young juveniles, the swans have only at few short months to prepare and be in top flying condition to make the arduous spring migration back to the far north.
Often when the swans arrive in Alaska and other northern grounds they are faced with frozen water and snow still on the ground, this makes their need to breed even more urgent as they have to build their nest produce their eggs and hatch their young.
Nests are built or old nest reused, and are often found on vegetation in shallow water; hatching of the cygnets coincides with the explosion of the insect population upon which the young feed for the first few weeks of their life.
There are many predators for the young swans including eagles, owls and mink, but there are also many other dangers as they fly south and arrive in our area.
As with all wildlife, human impact is the greatest peril facing the swans. As our habitat continues to encroach upon theirs, each year another potential hazard arises. It appears they will be at greater risk for any oil spills or other water pollutants with the proposed expansion of pipelines.
Migration takes a huge toll on the young if they run out of stored fat supplies; we often see them at MARS emaciated and in need of a short stay to fatten them up so they can be released back to the flock.
We have a special secure swan pond enclosure where swans are kept. Until they are ready for release, they are able to preen and clean themselves; fortunately last year we had few swans in care.
The swans’ huge wingspan makes them victims of electrocution by high wires as often they are disoriented by fog and do not get enough height to clear the wires. We thank BC Hydro for helping with this issue by adjusting wires for both swans and eagles. Another hazard presents itself under the water when the swans forage for roots. In some areas, leftover lead lurks in the mud from old hunting practices and the swans ingest the poison into the gizzard, which it paralyzes, causing fatal starvation. This is easy to identify as the swan “spins” in the water before drowning.
You can also help by keeping dogs on a leash and away from the water’s edge when there are swans or other sea birds close to shore. The Comox Valley is a major winter destination for migratory birds that dine on our abundant food supplies and we need to protect this habitat.
For more information, the Comox Valley Naturalists have a website at www.comoxvalleynaturalists.bc.ca. They also conduct monthly meetings. To report injured wildlife, call toll free 1-800-304-9968.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.