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Royal Swan FAQs

The Ottawa Humane Society is aware of the recent public debate concerning the care of the City's Royal Swans. In order to answer some commonly posed questions, we have prepared the following fact sheet:

What exactly are the Royal Swans?
Why are the swans being kept indoors?
Is the H5N1 virus a threat to humans, the swans or other animals?
What could happen to the swans if avian influenza was found in the swans or other wild bird populations in the region?
Where are the swans being housed?
What are the conditions at the facility like?
Why might the water in the facility be green?
Who has access to the swans?
Are the swans under stress?
Why didn't other cities like Stratford and Halifax keep their swans inside too?
Aren't there actually many other threats to the swans on the river?
What role does the OHS play?
Does the OHS think the swans should be released now and does it think that the City made the right call to keep the swans in the wintering facility this year?


What exactly are the Royal Swans?

Swans are large water birds of the family Anatidae, which also includes geese and ducks. Swans are grouped with the closely related geese in the subfamily Anserinae. The Royal Swans are not native to North America, and so are required to be pinioned -- that is, made unable to fly under regulations administered by the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Among the Royal Swans, there are two species: the Mute Swan, Cygnus olor, is a common temperate Eurasian species, often semi-domesticated, descendant of domestic flocks are naturalized in the United States, and; the Black Swan, Cygnus atratus, a native of Australia.

There are no native swans found in this region.


Why are the swans being kept indoors?

In May of this year, just prior to the annual spring release, City of Ottawa staff, in consultation with an avian veterinarian, decided to keep domesticated swans separated from the wild birds on the Rideau River.

This decision was made following a notice from the Canadian Wildlife Service, pointing out to aviculturists the potential risk of outbreaks of strains of avian influenza (bird flu) between captive and wild stocks of birds. The guidelines were developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and specify the following, "Minimize contact among resident birds in your facility, free ranging wild birds and domestic poultry."

The OHS was provided with this information at the time the decision was made.


Is the H5N1 virus a threat to humans, the swans or other animals?

The H5N1 virus is a subtype of the influenza virus, and is capable of causing illness in many animal species, including humans. More than 190 human cases have been recognized-with about half of them fatal-in Asia, Africa, and Europe. In almost all cases, those infected with H5N1 had extensive physical contact with contaminated birds.

H5N1 is predominantly an avian disease, and there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the disease.

The H5N1 virus has yet to be seen in North America.

As far as other animals are concerned, there have been published cases of infected cats in Thailand. This raises the possibility of other carnivorous animals being infected. Residents of some European cities have been asked to keep their cats indoors to prevent transmission of the virus.

In mid-August, American scientists discovered possible bird flu in two wild swans on the shore of Lake Erie. Testing of those birds is still ongoing, but initial examinations indicate that the swans don't have the original version of H5N1, but rather a milder, mutated strain.

The Canadian government is in the midst of collecting data for its Wild Bird Survey for Avian Influenza. The 2006 survey will enable animal and public health authorities to better understand the presence and characteristics of typical strains of avian influenza in North America's wild bird population, and therefore assess and report on the seriousness of the threat to humans and animals.


What could happen to the swans if avian influenza was found in the swans or other wild bird populations in the region?

Our experience with such other diseases, such as raccoon rabies, would suggest that authorities might undertake a cull, or mass extermination, of affected flocks.


Where are the swans being housed?

The swans are housed in their wintering facility in rural Ottawa.


What are the conditions at the facility like?

The OHS has visited the facility.

Overall, the facility is clearly in need of replacement or major retrofit. While the facility is unsightly, it does not, in our opinion, pose any significant health or safety risk to the swans.

Each pair of swans has its own enclosure, complete with private swimming areas and bedded resting areas. The facility currently provides approximately 150 square feet of space for each bonded pair of birds, including an outdoor area and a swimming area holding 210 gallons of water. Families, of which there is currently one, are provided an enclosure double that size.

The birds are able to move freely, and are able to spread their wings and engage in preening behaviour, which is a normal and frequent swan activity.

The outdoor areas have vegetation in them, including weeds, as would the natural conditions on the river. The birds have free access to the outdoor enclosure on a daily basis.

The OHS is satisfied that a strict cleaning and maintenance schedule is in place, in accordance with standard animal care protocols. The swans have access to natural light, and fresh air through an automatic air intake/exhaust fan system. They are examined regularly by a qualified veterinarian.


Why might the water in the facility be green?

The colour of the swimming pools is very likely a result of the swans' intake and output. The swimming area water would appear greenish partly because of the natural, plant-based waste produced by the swans and as a result of the greens (lettuce, spinach) that the birds are fed as a supplement to their grain-based feed. In order to eat, the vegetation is placed directly on the water, where the birds ingest it as they would in the wild.

The cleaning protocol calls for the water to be regularly drained and disinfected, but some colouration of the water is natural.


Who has access to the swans?

Due to the concern of disease and stress, City policy limits access to the swan facility to designated personnel and the consulting veterinarian.


Are the swans under stress?

The OHS is aware of the existence of photographs that show the swans with elevated wings and feathers scattered on the ground. While these pictures might seem distressing, the birds can be very territorial, and it is normal that the birds would react when strangers come in close proximity. There have been many reports of Mute Swans attacking people who enter their territory. The familiar pose with neck curved back and wings half raised, known as busking, is a threat display.

This is the primary reason for the long-standing policy that access to the facility is limited to designated personnel to reduce any unnecessary stress on the birds.

The swans are essentially wild animals, though they are dependant on humans because they are pinioned. City policies attempt to ensure that they are not habituated to humans for their own safety.

Swans naturally moult in July and August, which accounts for the shed feathers.


Why didn't other cities like Stratford and Halifax keep their swans inside too?

City officials report to us that, since these communities are much warmer than Ottawa, their facilities are much more open than those in this region, and the swans are never effectively isolated from wild bird populations. As a result, their swans wouldn't be protected by remaining in the winter facilities.


Aren't there actually many other threats to the swans on the river?

Yes. In the wild, there are a great many threats facing swans, including vandals, fishing-tackle injuries, predators, etc. These are difficult to control. Most of the threats do not affect human health or jeopardize the health of other animals, however.


What role does the OHS play?

The decision to keep the swans indoors this year was a decision made by the City of Ottawa. Our primary concern is that the swans are being treated humanely and that their habitat is clean, comfortable and safe. As a result of our own on-site visits to the facility, we are satisfied that this is the case.

We have expressed our concern to the City that sufficient planning occur for next year to ensure that the swans' best interest can be served. We hope that this will include a release on the river, and if this is not possible, that enhanced facilities can be created before the normal release date.


Does the OHS think the swans should be released now and does it think that the City made the right call to keep the swans in the wintering facility this year?

The OHS is not calling for the release of the swans this season. It is too late this year to make it worthwhile or prudent.

As to the original decision, the Ottawa Humane Society does not employ experts in either wild birds or avian flu, and is not in a position to judge the City's original actions.

All of us do, however, empathize with others who are called upon to make life and death choices about animals and their welfare and we believe that erring on the side of caution is preferable to recklessness.