The Beauty and Tragedy of Beacon Hill Park Mute Swans

By Janis Ringuette

Mute Swans

Gleaming white, awesomely large Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) floated on Goodacre Lake in Beacon Hill Park for more than a hundred years. There are no Swans left in the Park today, but their free-flying descendants can be found at many nearby shoreline locations.

Fifteen to eighteen Mute Swans are regularly seen at Esquimalt Lagoon, with a high of twenty-one birds recorded during the 2003 Christmas Bird Count. The two birds in the top photo were photographed there in December, 2004. Swans can also be seen at Esquimalt Harbour, Portage Inlet and Albert Head. In the Sooke area, they frequent Whiffen Spit, Sooke Basin and Pedder Bay.

Swans escaped into the wild during the 1960's when the City of Victoria stopped pinioning their wings. Pinioning is a surgical procedure in which a wing bone is cut. This permanently maims the birds so they can never fly.

Mute Swans, an exotic species native to the United Kingdom, were known as “regal birds” because in 12th century Britain, only kings possessed them. The birds were valued as lake ornaments on royal estates; they swim majestically with pure-white wings lifted, long necks in a graceful S shape, bright orange bill tilted down.

Swans were also featured as the main course for royal banquets. Serving platters must have been huge. Mute Swans are one of the world’s largest flying birds, weighing twenty-five to forty pounds (10 to 18 kg). The heaviest Mute Swan ever recorded was 50.7 lbs (23 kg).

There were four resident Swans in 1978--one mated pair at Fountain Lake and one pair at Goodacre Lake--when Paul LeComte started working in Beacon Hill Park. They ate grain from covered feeders set on posts above the water out of the reach of ducks. In winter, Park staff broke holes in the ice to maintain some open water for them in the deepest part of Goodacre Lake by the Stone Bridge.

Le Comte, now an Assistant Supervisor, remembers a colourful human character named Herbie, who claimed he was a “swanocologist.” Herbie put on a daily show for Park visitors by offering the birds lettuce held in his mouth.

Amusement turned to horror when people witnessed Mute Swans chase down and kill fluffy Mallard ducklings. The highly aggressive, territorial Swans drove Mallards off the islands, too, taking sole possession of the safest nesting sites. One particularly aggressive Swan named “Cobbie” chased other Swans’ cygnets right out of the lake.

Crowded into unnaturally small areas like Goodacre Lake and Fountain Lake, Swans were particularly bad tempered. They attacked any competitors for food and bit visitors who were slow in passing out bread. When long-time Victoria resident Roy Fletcher was a small boy, a Swan grabbed his pant leg and wouldn’t let go; his mother saved him by beating it off.

LeComte discovered the dead body of Fred, the last Park Swan, in 1997. Fred had been eating grass when a loose dog broke his neck. Unable to fly, slow-moving Swans were vulnerable to attacks by dogs when they ventured on land. The tables were turned when a dog entered the lake. Former Park Superintendent Alex Johnston recalled a Swan holding a dog underwater until it almost drowned.

Two young Mute Swans were among the first exotic birds in the fledgling 1889 Park zoo. Swan numbers grew rapidly in the 1890's and early 1900's. The Colonist noted “a superabundance of swans” in 1897, when thirteen adults laid a total of twelve eggs: “This will make a flotilla rather larger than the waters of the lake can accommodate.” In order to adjust numbers of Swans down, Park Committees sold and traded excess swans with other cities.

Goodacre Lake swan feeding
Swans by the Stone Bridge (BCA A-08814)

From the 1920's on, however, Swan numbers plummeted. Park Administrator W. H. Warren maintained a reserve Swan colony at city-owned Elk Lake, moving replacement Swans to Beacon Hill Park as needed. Despite herculean efforts to protect them, his Annual Reports were a litany of Swan disasters.

An increasing number of people and dogs using Beacon Hill Park resulted in constant attacks on Swans. In the 1930's, Warren recorded ten killed by stoning or poison and another eight stolen; in the 1940's, thirteen were stolen or killed by people and dogs. Warren repeatedly asked visitors not to feed waterfowl salted peanuts: “Salt can be fatal to the birds and has been determined as the cause of death of several Swans.”

In 1961, when Warren was pinioning cygnets at Elk Lake, a male adult suddenly began killing cygnets. Fearing for their safety, Warren moved five young birds to Fountain Lake, where they were accepted by a resident pair sitting on infertile eggs. He also moved an entire family of two adults and five cygnets to Goodacre Lake. The Colonist reported: “For the first time in several years, Beacon Hill Park now has a whole family of Swans swimming in Goodacre Lake.”

After that grim experience, Warren stopped pinioning. Every young bird flew away from the Park and Elk Lake. Warren reported: “By 1970, I saw them at Sooke Bay, Qualicum and Gulf Islands. In 1982, I noted about 60 in Quamichan Lake at Duncan."

When Warren retired, the City hired a veterinarian to pinion Swans. Pinioning is important not only to keep birds in a selected viewing area. It is essential in preventing nonnative birds from escaping into local environments where they can be threats to indigenous species. Aggressive Mute Swans defend large territories, driving native birds from foraging areas and preventing them from nesting. They eat submerged aquatic vegetation such as eelgrass, pulling out plants by the roots and degrading estuaries. For these reasons, all Mute Swans in Vancouver’s Stanley Park are pinioned.

Feral Mute Swans are a major wildlife concern in the eastern United States where Swan numbers have exploded to over 18,000. The State of Maryland plans to kill 3,000 to protect native birds and plants along Chesapeake Bay. It is not known what negative effects Mute Swans might be having on native species in the Victoria region.

In the photo below, seven Mute Swans swim close to Esquimalt Lagoon Road looking for handouts. Royal Roads University boathouses are visible on the other side of the Lagoon.

Mute Swans in Esquimalt Lagoon