A female trumpeter swan that was born at Six Mile Lake and lived there for 15 years has died after being shot and suffering lead poisoning, leaving behind her mate to raise four cygnets by himself.
Shades of Hope Wildlife Refuge in Pefferlaw was caring for the swan named Luna after residents on Six Mile Lake noticed she looked unwell. The residents act as volunteers for the Ontario Trumpeter Swan Reintroduction Program, which was started by retired Ministry of Natural Resources biologist Harry Lumsden in 1982 to address the extirpation, or local extinction, of the swans. Originally native to Ontario, trumpeter swans disappeared from Eastern Canada just over 200 years ago, largely due to hunting. Thanks to the success of the reintroduction program, Ontario now has an estimated population of over a thousand trumpeter swans, though they still face many threats that limit their population growth.
Anne Lewis and her husband Mike Waller have been monitoring Luna and the other swans as volunteers in the reintroduction program for 21 years. Lewis has a long history in conservation as founder and past president of Six Mile Lake Conservation Club, which no longer operates. Her love for wildlife is what led her to volunteer in the swan program.
“We have a special bond with them, and all the residents on the lake I think feel the same way,” Lewis said. “They’re just magnificent but powerful birds, and [there are] so many threats that they have to overcome to raise cygnets.”
Luna’s mate, Mote, came to Six Mile Lake in 1999 as part of the first nesting pair for the reintroduction program in Muskoka. Mote and his mate left the lake for a number of years, and when Mote returned alone after losing his mate, he found a new partner in Luna, who was born to another pair of swans at Six Mile Lake 15 years ago. This year, Luna and Mote had four cygnets, which are now being raised by Mote alone.
Seeing the signs of sickness
Lewis and her husband started to realize Luna was sick or injured a couple of weeks ago when she started lagging behind her family. The couple puts out corn for the swans as part of their monitoring efforts, and one day, they noticed that Luna wasn’t eating.
“She was hanging back and we thought, ‘That’s rather strange,’” Lewis said. “We know Luna really well, and she’s usually one of the first ones up to the dish. And then for a couple of days, she didn’t come at all.”
Luna returned a few days later but seemed to be shrinking. Lewis notified the other volunteers and shortly after, her neighbour Paul contacted a rescuer from the reintroduction team, who brought Luna to Shades of Hope. They x-rayed her upon arrival and found that she had seven pellets embedded in her as well as high levels of lead in her blood. She was brought to the wildlife refuge on Monday and died just five days later on the morning of Friday, Aug. 28.
Lewis and her neighbours are concerned about the elderly Mote being able to protect and raise the cygnets without his mate. Lewis said it’s heartbreaking to see, especially because these incidents are more common than many people may realize.
Swans face many man-made threats including electrical wires, wind turbines, boats and illegal hunting. However, Luna likely died from another common hazard: lead. Cathy Stockman, director of operations at Shades of Hope, said it’s highly probable that lead poisoning is what killed Luna.
“We see a lot of birds shot, swans and great blue herons and just about everything, and we see a lot of lead,” Stockman said. “The lead is now starting to appear even in non-water birds.”
Along with entering the food chain through scavengers and predators that consume lead ammunition or fragments, lead can also contaminate the environment. After Luna died, the wildlife refuge tested the pellets and found that they weren’t lead shot, meaning Luna could have been poisoned by contaminated water or plants or through ingesting lead hunting or fishing equipment.
Issues of carelessness and cruelty
It has been illegal to use lead ammunition to hunt migratory waterfowl since the 90s, and while some lead shot may still be used unlawfully, Stockman said a larger concern is lead fishing gear. Because of the risk posed to wildlife, it’s important that fisherman step up, she said, by making every effort to avoid abandoning lead tackle and other gear in waterways and by avoiding the use of lead altogether.
“We get stuff tangled in fishing line all the time, we get stuff that has ingested lead sinkers,” she said. “For the water birds, the fishermen actually pose a larger danger than the hunters, just from the standpoint of the lead.”
Along with lead, fishing line often injures or kills water birds. A recent intake at the refuge was a loon that had gotten tangled in fishing line and had a hook lodged in its wing, leading it to eat pebbles in desperation as it starved. Stockman also recalled an incident where a group of ducklings were tangled together in fishing line, and the wildlife refuge was only able to save one of the five.
Without reckless driving, careless hunters and fisherman, and other negligence, the wildlife refuge would be out of business, Stockman said, and they’d be thrilled if that were the case. The refuge has already taken in over 5,000 animals just this year.
“I would say probably 90 per cent of the animals come in here because of human carelessness or cruelty,” Stockman said.
Preventing future tragedies
Lewis and other volunteers in the swan program are all too familiar with consequences of carelessness when it comes to fishing and other activities. During her days in the conservation club, Lewis and her members would exchange lead fishing tackle with non-lead alternatives for free and then have the lead properly recycled to avoid the tragedies caused by abandoned lead equipment.
“All it would take would be for [Luna] to get into one or two lead sinkers or a fishing lure,” Lewis said. “They don’t know because if she did, it was ingested and went through her digestive tract, which was a good sign when we first heard that because it meant they didn’t have to do surgery for it, but it leached into her system.”
Lewis is heartbroken that the lead poisoning is the reason Luna won’t return to her family, but she’s also troubled by the seven pellets found in the bird. The pellets had been in Luna for an unknown period of time, having healed over in the time since she was shot. Lewis now believes the shooting didn’t happen in the last month or so, as they previously suspected, but it probably didn’t happen years ago either.
“She was shot,” Lewis said. “That’s not the reason she died, but it’s still an incident and still shouldn’t have happened.”
Hunting trumpeter swans is illegal under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, a piece of federal legislation enacted in 1994. Given the three-metre wingspan and bright white feathers of the birds, Lewis feels that it’s unlikely hunters are mistakenly shooting swans, but even if that’s the case, the responsibility lies with the hunter to know what they’re shooting, she said. Still reeling from the news of Luna’s death, Lewis and her neighbours are imploring hunters to be mindful of trumpeter swans as geese hunting season opens on Sept. 1.
“Hunting them is illegal under any circumstances, there is no season,” Lewis said. “There is no reason anyone should ever point a gun at a trumpeter swan.”
To learn more about Shades of Hope Wildlife Refuge, or to make a donation in support of their operations, visit their website. For more information about trumpeter swans and their reintroduction to Ontario, visit the Trumpeter Swan Coalition’s website.