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