The summer months can be hazardous times for young birds. Prowling cats, passing cars, and many other perils can result in birds being injured or orphaned. Luckily, Galway & Claddagh Swan Rescue has become expert in saving such birds, caring for them at its sanctuary in Lough Rusheen Park in Barna, and restoring them to the wild.
On the day I call to the sanctuary to meet Mary Joyce Glynn, one of the Rescue’s founder members, its residents include a selection of cygnets, gulls, doves, ducks and one surrogate mother goose, but more of her anon.
Mary’s love of wildlife goes all the way back to her childhood in the Newcastle region of Athenry, where both her parents were teachers. “My father was a great wildlife enthusiast,” she recalls. “We always had some animal in our house growing up, a fox with a splint on his leg or a jackdaw with a broken wing, things like that.”
She tells me how the Galway & Claddagh Swan Rescue came about; “In February, 2001, there was an oil spill in the Claddagh and an appeal went out for people to come and help to wash the swans and care for them down at the docks where a big shed had been allocated. So a lot of us came together and after that was all sorted a group of us stayed together and formed the Galway & Claddagh Swan Rescue, a registered charity which is totally volunteer-led, and here we are today, 15 years later.”
While the charity now has its purpose-built sanctuary that was not always the case; “At the start we used our own back gardens and our houses, our sculleries, everywhere and anywhere,” Mary recalls. “Things got busier year by year as we became better known.
"The orphan season runs from April to August and the fledgling season would be similar so we’d have people getting in touch with us and bringing us injured birds and even mammals, which we treat as well. In 2010, after applying for planning permission, Galway City Council allowed us to build our first holding pen here and last year we extended it into a much larger pen.”
'We are all like-minded people interested in wildlife'
I ask about the Swan Rescue membership; “There are about 10 of us in the group at the moment,” Mary replies. “We are all like-minded people who are interested in wildlife. Suzanne Divilly, our chair is a Galwegian and would have been used to swans and wildlife in Claddagh all her life."
"Most of the group are from Galway though at this stage we also have members from Spain, Brazilan students, a wide variety of people. We train them all and some of us have become qualified rehabilitators with the Irish Wildlife Council. We’ve done the exams and we can train people and take on third level students for work experience.”
A variety of contributions in both cash and kind helps keep the show on the road; “We get funding from Galway City Council and the Department of Agriculture, and that is a big help though it still doesn’t go anywhere toward our costs,” Mary explains. “We get some donations and we help out ourselves. Terryland Fruit and Veg give us wonderful help with the copious amounts of lettuce that we use and fruit and veg, as does Joyces Supermarket in Knocknacarra, and Ali’s Fish Shop in Barna and Henry Street are very generous with giving us seafood cut offs.”
I ask Mary if there is any particular rescue that stands out for her of the many she has been involved with over the years?
“About two years ago, the first otter cub that we had was found on Claddagh beach and that was a wonderful experience,” she declares. “It was a little orphan that had lost its mother. I hand-reared it and bottle-fed it. Then he went on to Kildare Wildlife Foundation for the next stage of his rehabilitation.
"We’ve had two more otters since and every year there are leverets to be reared and we help with seals as well. Sometimes distressed seal pups are found on the beach, they might be lost or dehydrated. We help with the initial stages of care and then they are transferred to the seal rescue in Courtown, County Wexford. That said, we were set up to care for wetland birds and they remain our priority.”
The summer months sees many people calling over young birds that have been injured by cats or else fallen out of their nest. Mary offers this advice; “If people kept their cats in at night a lot of these casualties would be avoided. Cats do most of their killing in early morning, around 6am, and late in the evening which is when birds are at their sleepiest and weakest.
'People have this idea if they handle a baby bird the parent birds will reject it but that is not true'
"A cat bite is very serious for a small bird, they have a lot of bacteria in their bite and a little bird usually dies after being bitten but larger birds may survive it. As regards nestlings falling out of nests, they can be put back into the nest. People have this idea that they can’t handle baby birds, that if they handle them the parent birds will reject them but that is not true.”
What types of injuries do swans present with at the sanctuary I enquire? “With swans it is usually wing injuries which are always very serious,” Mary replies. “When they are flying their eyesight is poor and their body weight propels them forward; when they see power lines they cannot turn in time so they collide and the impact can smash the wing. Sometimes they are killed outright and that’s often a mercy.
"A very easy way of fixing that would be to put markers on the lines; the ESB have done that in some places –in Waterside in Moylough and in Maree but there are many areas where they still haven’t done it. Swans keep to a flight path and they fly early morning and late evening towards water. If the sun is shining and there is a glare they don’t see the lines in time. Fishing hooks are another hazard that is terrible for swans in the Claddagh area. The hooks glitter in the water and the swans swallow them. We have to try and catch the swan and get the hook out of its mouth. They can do a lot of damage.
“At this time of year we also get lots of calls every day about gull chicks. People are worried thinking they are injured because they are on the ground unable to fly, but they are not injured they are just waiting to develop their flight feathers and muscles which takes about two weeks. During that time the parent birds feed and protect them.”
Finally, what of that maternal goose mentioned earlier? “She is a very motherly goose,” Mary acknowledges. “She was rescued as well; she was found on the motorway between Oranmore and Athenry. We couldn’t find her owner, we put notices into the paper and on the radio but nobody responded so we kept her. I had her for the first couple of years. She then started rearing orphan cygnets while she was in my garden in 2009 and then last year she mothered ducklings and this year she is delighted with her cygnets. It seems she is with us now for good but she does a great job!”
It is fair to say that everyone involved in Galway & Claddagh Swan Rescue does a great job. Long may that continue.