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