Burton’s Pond: Urban Wildlife Oasis

At the heart of Memorial University lies an ecosystem worth discovering…

My interest in Burton’s Pond (located on the St. John’s Campus of Memorial University of Newfoundland) was piqued this winter, both by the controversy over whether or not the ducks there should be fed by humans, and because a change of residence meant that I would walk past it each morning and evening on my way to and from work. For the first time I became aware that the pond is home to an impressive variety of wild bird species. My enthusiasm aroused, I summoned the help of Dr. Ian Jones of MUN’s Biology Department. On a cold and windy day in mid-March we sat together next to Burton’s Pond to take a peek into this lively and interesting little nook of an ecosystem.

Having had some warm spurts of weather during March – a tantalizing foretaste of spring – the ice on the pond had receded considerably, leaving perhaps a third of it open. Just a couple of weeks before only a tenth of the surface area of the pond had been ice-free. If not for the water circulator, or “bubbler”, installed at one end of the pond, the whole pond would freeze over and probably remain so well into March. The artificial maintenance of open water allows the domestic ducks that inhabit the pond year-round to survive the winter. Their main food source during this time is the people-food thrown to them by local duck-lovers.

Male and female tufted ducks. Photo by Ian Jones
Male and female tufted ducks. Photo by Ian Jones.

The continuous presence of open water also attracts various species of wild duck such as Mallard, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, Eurasian and American Wigeon, Greater and Lesser Scaup, and Tufted Duck. There was an especially noticeable abundance of Tufted Ducks this winter. The males of this species are easily recognized by their sharply contrasting black and white colouring. The Tufted Ducks, as well as the Greater and Lesser Scaup, are pochards, or diving ducks. Being awkward walkers, pochards spend most of their time on the water or diving under its surface for several seconds at a time to search for the aquatic plants and invertebrates on which they feed. Despite being well able to provide for themselves, they’ve also picked up the habit of eating people-food.

Most of the ducks at Burton’s Pond were merely wintering there, and would fly elsewhere to nest in the spring. The domestic ducks will remain and make their nests in the tall shrubs and grasses on the pond’s only island, or on those parts of the shoreline that remain suitable for nests.

As in most ponds, algae nourished by the sun provide the basis of a food chain that sustains not only the ducks, but also the fish populations of Burton’s Pond. Large German Brown Trout, which were introduced to freshwater systems on the Avalon Peninsula in the 1860s, have been observed spawning in the gravel at the south end of the pond. Due to their large size, Dr. Jones suspects that these trout may be anadromous (i.e. fish that live in the sea but come into freshwater systems to spawn). This is plausible, since Burton’s Pond is linked to the Rennie’s River system by means of underground drains. At one time it was linked by above-ground streams, but these were destroyed by development.

American Coot. Photo by Ian Jones
American Coot. Photo by Ian Jones.

Another fishy inhabitant of the pond is the Banded Killifish, a rare species in Newfoundland, found scattered about in disparate bodies of fresh water. This fish provided food last year for a pair of Common Tern who established a nest on the gravelly roof of one of the Burton’s Pond apartment buildings. Dr. Jones suspects that Killifish might have been introduced to the pond by an aquarist. Alternatively, Killifish eggs might have found their way to Burton’s Pond on the bodies of birds who had picked them up while visiting another pond.

Indeed, the ducks of Burton’s Pond are frequently seen flying to and from the pond. While other ponds in the area are not equipped with bubblers, there is open water at Quidi Vidi Lake, Mundy Pond, and Bowring Park due to the turbulence of natural currents. Ducks travel among these winter oases of open fresh water to take advantage of a variety of feeding options.

Given the small area of open water during the winter months at Burton’s Pond, the natural food supply there is easily depleted. Much of the pond-bottom near the edge of the pond in the ice-free area is gravelly, a sign that it has been grazed to the point where significant plant growth is no longer possible. While the pochards can dive for food in the deeper waters further from the pond’s shore, the other ducks – the dabbling or “puddle” ducks – can only forage for underwater food in shallow areas, usually at the pond’s edge. Dabbling ducks feed by tipping themselves tail-up in the water, so as to extend their heads and long necks toward the pond-bottom where they find plants, seeds, and snails to feed on. Ducks can be observed feeding in this way almost constantly at Burton’s Pond. The Mallards and Black Ducks also frequently graze on grass during the snow-free months.

Dr. Jones and I also observed various species of Gull at Burton’s Pond – such as Glaucous, Iceland, Herring, and Great Black-backed gulls. Scavenging for food at the dump is dirty business, so they enjoy washing themselves in the pond’s fresh and relatively warm water. A couple of times this winter I observed gulls attempting to attack ducks in the pond. The small Tufted Ducks easily escaped by diving. On one occasion I observed a gull pursuing a duck in flight. The duck landed on the pond and immediately dove under, just barely escaping the hungry beak of the much larger gull.

The gulls must be wary as well. They show an especially keen fear of bald eagles. As I passed by the pond one morning this winter all the gulls that were pitched on the ice suddenly took off en masse. I figured something must have spooked them. Sure enough when I looked up there was an eagle keeping watch high above the pond.

American Wigeon. Photo by Ian Jones
American Wigeon. Photo by Ian Jones.

The Rock Dove, or “pigeon”, is another inhabitant of the pond. Now that spring is gathering steam much prancing and posturing can be observed among them, and among the ducks too. As Dr. Jones and I sat at Burton’s Pond a great tussle among three male American Wigeons took place. They were vying for the privilege of keeping company with the only female Wigeon in the pond. After a great flurry of splashing and feather-pulling a male emerged victorious and took his place at the side of his female. We also saw two domestic ducks mating. The male looked as if he were going to drown the female. His body completely submerged hers while he pinched the flesh of her head and neck and pushed her head under water. In less than a minute it was over. They parted ways and made a show of stretching their wings and getting their feathers back in place.

The oddest inhabitant of the pond this winter was one American Coot. This smallish, roundish dark grey bird looked exceedingly out of place. The Coot has lobed – rather than webbed – feet, and a short tapered beak. They do not usually winter in Newfoundland, but somehow this one made its way here, perhaps blown off-course by the prevailing southwest winds. This particular Coot had to be rescued by Dr. Bill Montevecchi (also of Memorial’s Biology Department) after it left Burton’s Pond and became stranded out of water in the east end of the city. He returned it to Burton’s Pond and so far it has managed to sustain itself on people-food. Lacking the company of others of its kind, an odd bird among the more aquatically adapted ducks and gulls, the Coot has been a lonely sight this winter. Each time I see it puttering its way across the open water it seems utterly and forlornly excluded. It surprises me that no gull has yet taken advantage of this outsider and made a meal of him. Fortunately I have never seen the other birds molesting it.

After about half an hour by the pond, the chilling wind drove Dr. Jones and I back indoors. My shivering body reminded me that I lack a certain toughness that the birds of Burton’s Pond possess in spades. I left with a new appreciation for the community of creatures that lives there. How fortunate we are to have this outpost of wilderness in the midst of our urban bustle.

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