It’s swan ver­sus swan in re­cov­er­ing Hamil­ton har­bour

Oil­ing eggs of mute swans may be ‘bad op­tics,’ but the prac­tice is part of the painstak­ing restora­tion of na­tive trum­peter swans to the city’s har­bour

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - MATTHEW VAN DONGEN PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY CATHIE COW­ARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Turns out ev­ery­one’s favourite bayfront swan nest is also the safest place to raise a cygnet in Hamil­ton har­bour.

The mute swan nest near the boat launch — con­stantly pho­tographed, of­ten sur­rounded by bird-watch­ers — is the only one off-lim­its to a wildlife con­trol pro­gram that has de­stroyed hun­dreds of eggs of in­va­sive swans since 2011 to help re­build the har­bour pop­u­la­tion of their na­tive cousins.

Swan eggs ac­tu­ally make up only a frac­tion of those “oiled” to pre­vent hatch­ing around Hamil­ton har­bour. Sev­eral landown­ers and agen­cies have par­tic­i­pated in the con­tentious con­ser­va­tion pro­gram started in the 1990s, us­ing per­mits from the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice to help con­trol an alarm­ing spike in non­mi­grat­ing Canada geese.

More than 600 goose eggs are de­stroyed an­nu­ally all around the bay by dous­ing them with min­eral oil to pre­vent the birth of goslings. (The oil pre­vents oxy­gen from pass­ing through the egg shell to the em­bryo within.)

Holly Gar­reau was “in­fu­ri­ated” to learn about the long-stand­ing prac­tice from a city worker dur­ing her reg­u­lar walk to watch swans near Pier 4.

“It breaks my heart,” said Gar­reau, who doesn’t play favourites between the swans.

“I think what both­ers me the most, these gor­geous crea­tures are lit­er­ally go­ing through hell, es­pe­cially this year with the flood­ing and weather, just to keep their eggs in one place. Leave the ba­bies alone.”

The city’s con­tracted bird con­trol spe­cial­ist is sup­posed to oil any mute swan eggs found on municipal prop­erty.

That’s on the as­sump­tion some nests will al­ways go undis­cov­ered, said Hamil­ton parks man­ager Kara Bunn.

There is a “spe­cial ex­cep­tion” granted for the pop­u­lar Bayfront Park nest, how­ever. “Our res­i­dents are very adamant about want­ing to watch those baby swans.”

The bird con­trol ef­forts, over­seen by a com­mit­tee of landown­ers and agen­cies un­der the Hamil­ton Har­bour Re­me­dial Ac­tion Plan, in­cludes more than egg-oil­ing, Bunn noted. The city is also re-nat­u­ral­iz­ing shore­lines to make them less goose-friendly and pays a con­trac­tor to use dogs and flares to scare birds away from beach ar­eas.

It’s all be­ing done for sound en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons, to sup­port na­tive birds … and im­prove wa­ter qual­ity,” Bunn said. “But there is not nec­es­sar­ily a lot of un­der­stand­ing (among res­i­dents) about why we do what we’re do­ing.”

Oil­ing mute swans eggs may be “bad op­tics,” but the prac­tice is part of the painstak­ing restora­tion of na­tive trum­peter swans to the har­bour, said Tys Theysmeyer, head of nat­u­ral lands at the Royal Botan­i­cal Gar­dens.

Trum­peters bred in cap­tiv­ity were rein­tro­duced Cootes Par­adise two decades ago, nearly 70 years af­ter the North Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion was hunted to near ex­tinc­tion.

But rel­a­tively few call the Cootes marsh home — in part be­cause the more ag­gres­sive mute swans, orig­i­nally im­ported from Europe, “es­sen­tially mus­cle many of the na­tive birds out of the ter­ri­tory,” Theysmeyer said, point­ing to en­dan­gered black terns as well as trum­peters.

The har­bour-wide pro­gram was orig­i­nally aimed specif­i­cally at Canada geese, cit­ing con­cerns like “fouled” parks, wa­ter pol­lu­tion, bird-traf­fic col­li­sions and even the oc­ca­sional an­gry goose at­tack on un­lucky passersby. An adult Canada goose is a pro­lific pooper, able to de­posit up to two pounds of black­green goop in a sin­gle day

Aside from Hamil­ton and the RBG, past par­tic­i­pants in lo­cal bird con­trol ef­forts have in­cluded Burling­ton, the port author­ity, con­ser­va­tion author­ity, ArcelorMit­tal Do­fasco, Stelco, the Burling­ton Golf and Coun­try Club and Vopak Ter­mi­nals of Canada.

Cities, air­port au­thor­i­ties and busi­nesses all over On­tario pay for egg-oil­ing and bird con­trol ser­vices. Some, like St. Catharines, have even rounded up hun­dreds of moult­ing birds (when they can’t fly) and shipped them to out-of-town farms. For Hamil­ton, con­trol­ling the Canada goose pop­u­la­tion is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant given its strug­gles with bac­te­rial con­tam­i­na­tion at har­bour beaches. Bayfront Park beach was closed on or­ders from pub­lic health of­fi­cials last year over re­peated un­safe E. coli lev­els. But does it work? For geese, any­way, there is hope the pro­gram is slowly “bring­ing the pop­u­la­tion back into bal­ance,” said Theysmeyer, who points to a steady de­cline in eggs oiled each year.

Egg-oil­ing by all har­bour landown­ers has stopped nearly 6,000 goslings from hatch­ing since 2008. But an­nual statis­tics have fallen from about 1,100 oiled goose eggs in 258 nests that year to 600 eggs in 160 nests by 2014.

Count­ing the “res­i­dent” geese pop­u­la­tion is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult be­cause the birds move around, and some har­bour honkers are just mi­grant vis­i­tors. But each nest rep­re­sents a mat­ing pair, and when the pro­gram started, part­ners re­ported more than 350 nests around the har­bour each spring.

Swan egg-oil­ing be­gan in the har­bour in 2011, and not ev­ery landowner does it ev­ery year. But Bunn said Hamil­ton’s con­trac­tor has oiled between 18 and 35 mute swan eggs a year since 2012 on city-owned lands.

Theysmeyer doesn’t ex­pect to see as many eggs oiled this year be­cause record high lake lev­els are dis­rupt­ing nest­ing for all har­bour birds. “Mother Na­ture is kind of do­ing the job for us this year.”

The mother mute swan at Bayfront Park con­tin­ues to watch over her eggs Tues­day. Three of her orig­i­nal seven eggs seem to be miss­ing.

HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO

Trum­peter swans were rein­tro­duced Cootes Par­adise two decades ago, nearly 70 years af­ter the North Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion faced ex­tinc­tion.

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