In 1967, then-governor general Roland Michener joined Ottawa mayor Frank Reid at a ceremony behind City Hall to release six pairs of mute swans into the Rideau River.
The swans were a gift from the Queen to mark Canada’s centennial. Today, the descendants of those 12 royal swans continue to swim and forage in the Rideau from May to November. Then they head to their winter home at the city’s Leitrim Nursery, to wait for spring when once again they take to the historic waterway that wends its way through the nation’s capital.
The swans have a distinguished lineage. In a tradition dating back hundreds of years, the reigning English monarch is deemed to be the Seigneur of the Swans, owner of all unmarked mute swans in the Thames River.
The white mute swans add a touch of grace to the beautiful waters of the Rideau as they choose their own favourite stretch of the river for the season. Occasionally you’ll spot a few Australian black swans, descendants of some donated by the Montreal zoo in 1974.
In the past, with limited winter facilities, a number of the swans had to be given away, the program co-ordinator for the city, Christine Hartig, tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. Between that and natural attrition, there are currently just eight royal swans and four black swans on the river. The numbers rise and fall over time.
The swans, which can live for 30 years or more, mate for life but will accept a new mate if one dies. They normally sleep at night, but occasionally take a catnap during the daylight hours.
The swans nest in areas of tall grass or brush, away from predators and curious passersby.
Swans haven't learned how to skate ...
Interestingly, the swans aren’t placed inside for the winter because of the cold, but because there isn’t sufficient open water on the Rideau River, which often freezes over. Open water is required for feeding. (It’s the nearby Rideau Canal that accommodates the world’s largest skating rink.)
In fact, swans can occasionally be seen wintering along protected, but open, stretches of Lake Ontario, such as near the Cobourg Marina.
Out of consideration for the swans’ health, visitors are not allowed inside the Leitrim Nursery where the majestic birds have access to their own pond.
Swans’ natural food is the plants that grow along the river. Well-meaning people who toss them bread would be serving the swans better if they tossed them lettuce, spinach and alfalfa sprouts!
The swans’ enemies include dogs, raccoons and fox. The adults must protect their young from large fish and snapping turtles.
Ottawa’s royal swans cannot fly because their wings have been pinioned, meaning the primary feathers on one wing has been permanently clipped. This precaution is dictated by the Canadian Wildlife Service so the birds don’t migrate and disturb native North American species.