In Smiths Falls, the geese are not chicken of swans

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In Smiths Falls, the geese are not chicken of swans

The town of Smiths Falls is using swans to drive Canada geese from a park near the Rideau Canal, but the plan seems to be backfiring.

"We come here a couple times a day and the geese and swans are friends," said retiree Rob Kettles.

"Some days you'll see 20, 30 geese here with the swans," he said. "It's not working."

Kettles, who moved to Smiths Falls from Ottawa for the affordable house prices two-and-a-half years ago, nonetheless supports the purchase of the swans.

The mated pair, believed to be about four years old, cost the town $1000, which includes the expense of overwintering the birds at a nearby farm.

"To me, that's a drop in the bucket. If it's going to draw people into the town or make it more attractive, it's money well spent."

Kettles said he and his wife visit the Victoria Basin area of the Rideau River daily, and he's noticed more visitors enjoying the swans — but not fewer geese.

"We'll see the swans here in this area, and there might be 20-30 geese — they're like their buddies," said Kettles.

A bargain compared to other solutions

Swans are not the most creative or even expensive way authorities have tried to control Canada geese populations. 

In 2013, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada paid $44,000 to hire two border collies to chase more than 1,000 crop-ravaging Canada geese from Central Experimental Farm property.

In 2014, ex-IBM employee and drone enthusiast Steve Wambolt launched "Goosebuster" in Ottawa, a lit-up hexicopter system that blasted predator noises at geese as a means of scaring them away from park areas.

Smiths Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow said town staff began searching for a way to control its exploding Canada goose population in the park last year.​

"There's not a lot of solutions — we're not going to go out and shoot them or physically remove them," he said.

Ultimately, staff recommended the town buy swans, whose territoriality is thought to make them good at driving away other nesting birds.

In a page outlining the threat to native species, Environment and Climate Change Canada says pairs of Mute swans typically establish territories of 0.2-5.0 hectares and defend them from other Mute swans and other wetland-dependent birds and mammals.

But since the introduction of the clipped swans to the Victoria Basin area in July, Pankow himself says he's seen as many as 60 Canada geese mingling with the new residents.

"So far, they're getting along, so probably not ideal."

Aware of the on-again, off-again controversy in Ottawa over the cost and logistics of accomodating swans descended from six pairs of Mute swans presented to the city in 1967 by the Queen, Pankow is treading carefully.

In 2010, Ottawa's swans wintered at a building on Leitrim Road that animal rights activists decried as inadequate.

"The challenge [in Smiths Falls] is keeping people from feeding them, and there's no political firestorm over having them here," he said.

As for their goose-patrolling duties, Pankow is urging residents to be patient with the town's new hires.

He says they won't know if the swans are keeping the goose population in check until next spring, when the bigger birds begin nesting and defending their territory.

In the meantime, he said reaction to the new additions has been positive.

"It's worked out so far for tourism and for residents, we'll see next spring how well it works as a deterrent," he said.