Wildlife Wednesday: bald eagles are nesting in Toronto for the first time in history

Plus: sturgeon-a-surgin’ in the Great Lakes, caribou -a-boomin’ on Baffin Island, orca for days in the open ocean, and “horrific” animal poison banned in Canada

Photo: Marneejill/Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED]
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Birders and environmentalists have been flying high since mid March when they confirmed a pair of bald eagles are nesting in Toronto for the first time in documented history. Until last year, bald eagles were listed under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act as being of “special concern” after the population was decimated by harmful pesticides. The Toronto nest is a sign the charismatic birds are on the rebound — and that restoration efforts along local waterfronts, streams, ravines and industrial sites are working. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which is keeping an eye on the nest, reports that the presence of bald eagles is a good indication of a healthy ecosystem as the species has a very low tolerance to environmental contaminants. Because they are large birds of prey, bald eagles also need a healthy population of fish, waterfowl and small mammals to raise a family.

No more poison

Coyotes were one of the several species targeted with strychnine as a way to cull populations and keep caribou in areas of Canada like Alberta. (Photo: Brandon Broderick/Can Geo Photo Club)
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After years of advocacy and campaigns by animal protection and conservation groups, a powerful, torturous poison is finally being banned by Health Canada due to its inhumane and brutal nature. 

Highly effective but also highly cruel, strychnine is a powerful poison used to control predator populations of species like wolves and coyotes in certain areas of Canada like Alberta. Considered “one of the worst ways to die” by some veterinarians, strychnine works by causing severe muscle cramps to the point of strangulation and exhaustion, eventually leading to death. Between 2005 and 2018, nearly 500 animals were killed as a result of strychnine, including wolves, coyotes, bears and even non-targeted animals such as ravens, lynx and companion dogs. 

In a report published by Humane Society International, wildlife campaign manager Kelly Butler said, “This ban will spare so many animals from horrific, prolonged and needless deaths, and we commend the government for taking this step towards improving welfare outcomes for wildlife and removing poisons from Canada’s ecosystems.”


Oceanic orcas

Photo: Robin Gwen Agarwal/Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED]
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A group of killer whales have been spotted hunting large prey 300 kilometres off the coast of California and Oregon — and scientists think they might be a new subpopulation. According to a study conducted by researchers from the University of British Columbia, the 49-orca-strong pod were seen hunting leatherback turtles, elephant seals, dolphins, and sperm whales.

This group of transient killer whales, temporarily called oceanics, have been observed in nine encounters from 1997 to 2021. Their unique hunting habits and habitats set them apart.

“They’re still killer whales…that have just spent more time in the open ocean that we just haven’t seen before,” Andrew Trites, a professor at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, and a co-author of the study, told CBC News.

Transient killer whales exclusively hunt marine mammals like seals, sea lions and other whales. Their diet keeps them closer to coastlines, where food is easier to find. Oceanics, however, were observed mostly in the cold open ocean. Due to the lack of abundant prey in these open waters, the orcas likely hunt whatever they encounter.

Further research, including DNA analysis and continued sightings is necessary to fully understand the genetic and ecological uniqueness of this population.

Surgin’ sturgeon  

Photo: USFWS Midwest Region/Flickr [PDM 1.0 DEED]
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Windsor-Essex might be the last region in Canada where you can see baby sturgeon.

Labeled “the closest anybody comes to seeing a dinosaur alive today,” sturgeon can reach up to two metres long and weigh in at 200 pounds. Once found throughout the vast lakes and riverways of North America, this prehistoric-looking fish is an emblem of the Great Lakes. But recent decades have seen populations decline, first due to over harvesting, then due to shipping lanes and hydroelectric dams. 

But now, a University of Windsor and Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research project is breeding sturgeon for release into the Detroit River. Nowhere else in Canada offers the opportunity to see juvenile sturgeon in such quantities. The project focuses on naturalizing the young fish to their environment in order to allow future generations to thrive in the wild. Once released, the fish are able to live for decades, and will be tracked throughout their lifetime using tags. 


Photo: Bureau of Land Management/ Bob Wick [Flickr] [CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED]
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The Baffin Island caribou population was found to be decimated in 2015, but hunter observations and composition surveys say numbers may well be on the rebound. Just to be sure, researchers from Nunavut’s Department of Environment are planning to carry out the first comprehensive abundance survey in a decade.

Following the results of the last count in 2014 — which found a decline to about 4,600 caribou from their 150,000-strong-population in the 1980s — the Nunavut government imposed a temporary moratorium on hunting caribou in January 2015. Even once that was lifted, strict hunting quotas were enforced.

The new survey will start in southern Baffin Island in march, focussing on caribou populations around the communities of Iqaluit, Kimmirut, Kinngait, Pangnirtung and Qikiqtarjuaq. In an interview with CBC News, Nunavut’s minister of environment expressed that “there are positive and encouraging sign of possible recovery in some south Baffin areas.”

Smaller aerial surveys have backed up this optimism, with signs of an increasing number of calves, females, and overall good productivity.

The Department of Environment will lead the research work, but will work with local hunters and trappers. 

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