Trumpeter swans face many hardships during the winter season.

MARS Moment: Winter poses hazard for swans

Whether you are a long time resident or a newcomer to the mid-Island it is always a thrill to see the trumpeter swans' winter arrival

Whether you are a long time resident or a newcomer to the mid-Island it is always a thrill to see or hear the honking as the trumpeter swans announce their winter arrival. I never tire of the beauty and elegance of these birds and continue to be in awe of their yearly migratory feat.

In one year they make the return trip to Alaska and back, during this time they breed and raise a family, often they run into severe weather conditions which takes its toll on the weak birds.

There are seven species of swans in the world – the largest are the trumpeter swans, on average they weigh twelve kilograms and have a huge wingspan of two and a half metres. Adult trumpeters are snow white with black legs and feet, their black beaks stretch to the inside corners of their eyes; sometimes they are confused with tundra swans which are smaller and have a yellow marking next to the eye where it joins the beak. Juvenile swans have gray plumage with pink beaks, and muddy yellow legs and feet.  Adult swans are monogamous and the juveniles stay with the parents as a family unit for one year. These swans are very social in the winter, congregating in large numbers.

Winter migration starts with the first hard frosts that cause food supplies to dwindle, the swans must leave whilst there is still enough open water for them to achieve “lift off”; they need a “run way” of water or ground at least a hundred yards long to become airborne.

The southern migration is particularly gruelling for the families and diligent preparation is necessary. The young swans need to be in top shape for flight and must carry enough fat supplies to last them for many miles before stopping to refuel. In the winter they mainly forage for root crops and grasses in shallow flooded fields, straining the food through their serrated beaks removing the excess water.

With their fat supplies topped up and longer daylight hours they are ready to leave for their summer breeding grounds. They arrive as new aquatic vegetation is emerging and the newly hatched cygnets dine on the exploding insect population.

Each year in the Comox Valley a group of naturalists and volunteers conduct an annual swan count starting in early November continuing through March. Every Tuesday the count is completed in designated areas and the numbers of adult and juvenile swans are recorded to assess the health of the swan population.

Although the populations appear to be stable the future of their habitat is always cause for concern through development and encroachment of urban areas. Any day now M.A.R.S. expects to be called out to rescue a swan, many of the first year migrants will arrive severely emaciated, totally exhausted by the effort of migration.

Too weak to feed themselves, often room and board is all they need to regain their strength before being returned to the flock. Due to the nature of their foraging, which is often in mud or silt, they are sensitive to toxins especially lead that is absorbed causing the gizzard to become paralyzed, resulting in starvation.

Electrocution is also a hazard for these birds, often winter weather means poor visibility and the swans are susceptible to hitting power lines during take offs and landings.

Finally humans also are a source of harassment for the swans, if you wish to view the swans please stay at a safe distance or in a vehicle, they are easily spooked.

Our resources have been stretched to the limit. We are expecting a very busy winter season with all the severe storms that have already come and more predicted.

I cannot imagine the plight of our local wildlife if M.A.R.S. is no longer able to provide the professional care these creatures need to recover,we are pleading with the public for any donation they may be able to make, if you can help please call (250) 337-2021, or donate online at  www.wingtips.org

To report injured wildlife call 1-800-304-9968.

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