Be­hind the im­age

Trum­peter swans came per­ilously close to ex­tinc­tion across North Amer­ica, but there's life in the big birds yet.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS - by MEERA SU­LAIMAN

Trum­peter swans

Trum­peter swans so­cialise on melt­ing ice at LaSalle Park, Hamil­ton Har­bour, Lake On­tario. The peace­ful scene may be some­what at odds with the smoke-belch­ing chim­neys of the Stelco steel mill in the dis­tance, but that the birds are in the pic­ture at all is some­thing to cel­e­brate.

The trum­peter – the largest swan in the world – once nested across North Amer­ica in its hun­dreds of thou­sands, but was vir­tu­ally hunted out of ex­is­tence for its meat, feath­ers and even its feet. By 1886, the species had van­ished from On­tario; by 1935, just 69 clung on across the en­tire con­ti­nent.

The swan’s honk­ing call might have been si­lenced for good had it not been for a cap­tive breed­ing project launched in On­tario in the 1980s, which saw the birds slowly re­colonise their for­mer watery haunts. In 1993, a pair and their six cygnets set­tled in for win­ter at LaSalle, the first time in more than a cen­tury that wild trum­peters had bred in the prov­ince. The fe­male, af­fec­tion­ately named ‘Pig Pen’ for her messy ways, liked the park so much that she re­turned for the next 11 years.

Clean liv­ing

LaSalle now hosts more than 200 trum­peters each win­ter, and key to the swans’ re­turn has been tack­ling pol­lu­tion. “Steel­mak­ing in Canada has long been as­so­ci­ated with en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age, and Stelco was pump­ing waste into Hamil­ton Har­bour well into the 1980s,” says Meera. “But thanks to a gov­ern­ment pol­lu­tion con­trol or­der, the wa­ter qual­ity has im­proved enor­mously.”

The clean-up came not a mo­ment too soon. “Hu­man en­croach­ment around the Great Lakes has all but elim­i­nated suit­able over­win­ter­ing grounds for trum­peters,” says Meera. “With­out LaSalle, there would be nowhere else for them to go.”

En­croach­ment around the Lakes has all but elim­i­nated win­ter­ing grounds for trum­peters. With­out LaSalle, there’d be nowhere for them to go.

MEERA SU­LAIMAN Is a Sri Lankan-born Cana­dian photograph­ic artist based in On­tario. See more of her work at washof­black.com

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