Dear Bird Folks,
I don’t mind learning about new birds once in a while, but for the past few weeks you have written exclusively about West Coast birds. Enough is enough. I think it’s time to get back to New England birds. With that in mind, I’d like to know about Common Loons. Specifically, I’d like to ask how the loon population is doing. Is it growing or shrinking? Any clue?
– Don, Rockport, MA
Here’s a clue, Don,
I’m happy to write about New England birds, but that would mean I couldn’t answer your question. Common Loons are not exclusive to New England. Sure, New England may be able to claim its own clam chowder (the good kind), plus important other things like jimmies, bubblers, package stores, rotaries and frappes, but loons are international. They can be found across most of Canada and as far west as Alaska. They also breed in Greenland, in Iceland, and occasionally in Scotland. Speaking of regional specialties, did you know that the Scots eat something called “cullen skink”? I can’t even imagine what that is, but I can guarantee it’s not as good as a frappe. Frappes are wicked awesome.
It’s understandable that you would equate loons with New England. They have long been the symbol of the northern wilderness, especially in states like Maine and New Hampshire. In fact, now that the Old Man in the Mountain has passed away, loons are one of the only reasons to visit New Hampshire, along with skiing and no sales tax. NH is so aware of the loon’s importance to the state they have even named a mountain and ski resort after the bird. They have also formed the Loon Preservation Committee, an organization dedicated to loon protection. The committee is headquartered in a place called “The Loon Center.” (To be clear, The Loon Center was built to inform people about the conservation work they do and is not a place to learn about the daily behavior of Charlie Sheen.)
Loons are expert swimmers and divers, but because their legs are set so far back on their bodies (which helps them swim underwater), they stink at walking. They can barely push themselves more than a few feet over dry land. As a result, they are forced to build their nests right on the water’s edge. Nesting along the shore has made their nests extremely vulnerable to human-controlled water fluctuations. If the lake water rises, their nests become swamped; if the water level falls, the nests may be left high and dry, inaccessible to the water-bound adults. In addition, they are very susceptible to disturbances from kayakers and canoers or any small boat that explores hidden bays. And because loons are a paranoid lot, once disturbed they may abandon the nest or at least take a long time to return to it. Unprotected eggs can easily fall victim to hungry raccoons or gulls, or die from the cooling effects of bad weather.
To help the loons avoid the hazards of shoreline living, concerned citizens have gotten together and built nesting rafts for the birds. Around here we put up bluebird boxes or Osprey platforms, but the folks in New Hampshire, and other northern states, place nesting rafts out in their lakes. The rafts are roughly 6’X8’ and are filled with assorted vegetation. Some of the high-end rafts are even equipped with handicapped ramps so the walking-challenged adults can crawl up into them. The raft/nests are then towed and anchored in quiet coves that are out of the wind and away from annoying humans. At first glance these rafts look rather frightening, but the loons love them and in some areas they are their nesting location of choice. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in recent years a problem has developed. While loon fans have been working hard to save their favorite bird, other tree-hugger types have been working equally as hard to save a different bird, and that bird eats loons. The recovery of the Bald Eagle is a wonderful thing, except if you are a loon. The exposed nesting rafts have made young loons susceptible to eagle predation. As a result, many rafts have had to be fitted with canopies. The canopies give the loons a safe place to raise their young, while keeping the eagles away. Now the only thing the birds have to worry about is having the rafts taken over by Somali pirates.
The list of things that loons have going against their overall survival is fairly long. In some locations acid rain has reduced the number of fish the loons depend upon for food. In addition, many of the fish contain high levels of mercury, which ultimately sickens the birds. There is also lead poisoning. (The hits keep coming.) While picking up bits of grit off the bottoms of lakes, the birds mistakenly ingest lead shot from hunters’ shotguns or lead sinkers from sloppy fishermen. Then there are oil spills. Let’s not even mention that. It’s too depressing.
With all these problems stacked against them, Don, you would think that loons are quickly going the way of Passenger Pigeons, TVs with rabbit ears or iPad-1. But even though their populations have dropped in some areas, on the whole they are holding their own. It turns out that these handsome water birds, that can’t even walk, are far more adaptable than we first thought they were. If they can somehow stay away from lead, mercury, oil, Somali pirates, and above all, a bowl of Scottish cullen skink, loons should be with us for many years to come.