Biology

The Common Loon in Michigan

The Common Loon is one of the earth’s most ancient birds, its ancestors having originated some 50 million years ago, and the modern Loon about 10 million years ago. The loons’ hauntingly beautiful voice is matched by its striking plumage, with a collar of white stripes and intricate patterns of white and black feathers on wings and back.

The loon wanders endlessly. It summers on northern lakes and migrates in a perilous journey to the seacoast each fall. Its return to familiar northern lakes signals the end of a long winter. To many, the Common Loon is wilderness, and beckons us to recall when life was simpler. To hear the loon as we stir in the early morning light soothes the soul.

The loon is most at home on the water. Its legs and large, webbed feet are set far back on the body, providing excellent propulsion underwater, but making it difficult for the bird to walk on land. Its solid, rather than typically avian hollow bones make it an excellent Diver-its name in the old world. Its heavy body and high wing loading require it to run, and then fly along the water for hundreds of yards to become airborne.

Small fish are the favorite food of the loon, although they may also eat frogs, small invertebrates, crustaceans, and aquatic plants. A loon catches and eats its food with its spear-like bill while diving underwater. Dives can last for several minutes, during which the bird can cover considerable distances, and apparently vanish.

The nest is always constructed near water. The female usually lays two eggs. The male and female share in incubating the eggs for about 28 days, and the nest is defended vigorously during incubation. The downy, black chicks leave the nest soon after they hatch and depend on the adults for food for about eight weeks. The young loon often rides "piggyback" on a parent, finding warmth, safety and security atop the more experienced bird. They soon learn to fish, and in the fall migrate alone to the sea, where they remain for three years until they too return to their natal lake or nearby to raise another generation of loon chicks. A loon may live as long as 20-30 years.

Common Loon populations in the United States have receded northward since the advent of European settlement. Their range in the modern age finds them along the northern tier of the continental US, in Canada and Alaska. At the turn-of-the-century, Michigan Loons continued to breed throughout the state, although southern nesting populations were declining. Now the majority of breeding loons is restricted to Northern Michigan, and the Common Loon is, unfortunately, anything but common here.

Let’s Get the Lead Out

Every year, loons, swans, cranes, and other water birds die needlessly from lead poisoning after swallowing lead fishing sinkers and jigs.

Sport anglers attach lead weights to fishing lines to sink hook, bait, or lures into the water. Some anglers use lead-weighted hooks, called jigs. A sinker or jig may accidentally detach from a line and fall into the water, or the hook or line may become entangled and the line may break or be cut.

A fish eating water bird, like a Loon, may be attracted to bait on a hook. It may swallow a sinker or jig attached to the line or to an escaped fish.

Lead poisoning is not a small problem. Between 1.5 and 2.5 million migratory waterfowl die annually from consuming sinkers, jigs, or shot made from lead. This is two to three percent of the entire North American waterfall population.

Lead poisoning

A bird that eats lead will become ill and die. Ingested lead enters the gizzard, where a combination of stomach acids and abrasion breaks down the metal. It then is absorbed into bloodstream.

A bird with lead poisoning will exhibit physical and behavioral changes including loss of balance, gasping, tremors, and an impaired ability to fly. The weakened bird is more vulnerable to predators, or it may have trouble feeding, mating, nesting, and caring for its young. It becomes emaciated and often dies within two or three weeks after eating the lead.

Just one lead sinker or jig can poison a water bird. On freshwater lakes of the eastern United States and Canada, lead poisoning is the most significant contributor to death in adult Common loons, causing at least 50 percent of known deaths.

Angler's Educational Brochure

Safer Fishing Tackle

Lead poisoning does not have to happen. Sinkers and jigs do not have to be made of lead. Many alternatives to lead fishing weights are available, and they are both inexpensive and ecologically sound.

Anglers can use sinkers and jigs made from nonpoisonous material such as tin, bismuth, steel, and recycled glass.

The MLPA has developed an educational brochure for Michigan anglers to help them understand this problem.

New Regulations

To help prevent water birds from getting lead poisoning, Great Britain banned the use of lead sinkers in 1987. In Canada, it is illegal to use lead fishing sinkers and jigs in national parks and national wildlife areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering banning the use of lead sinkers and jigs on national wildlife refuges. Several states will likewise soon ban the use of lead.

 Mercury Poisoning

Mercury poisoning is becoming a major problem for loons. Eating contaminated fish and plants has caused mercury levels to become very high in some loons. Because they are at the top of the food chain, tiny amounts of mercury from sources such as automobiles, coal-fired power plants, and industrial pollution are magnified in the fish consuming loons. Organic mercury, a neurotoxin, affects behavior; affected adults parent inadequately, giving chicks less back riding, providing insufficient food, leaving the chicks on their own too early, and becoming weak and listless. A good summary of the effects of mercury on humans and wildlife is reported in the 1995 Proceedings of the Canadian Mercury Network Workshop.

 How to Help Loons and People Coexist

Though it is illegal to harass wildlife in Michigan, even more importantly, the unintentional or intentional behaviors that result in the loss of even one chick press this never Common species closer to disappearing from Michigan waters forever. The Common Loon does not breed for the first three to four years of its life. Usually laying only two eggs per year, average nesting success is less than one chick per pair per year. There are probably less than 400 pairs breeding in the state of Michigan. Each chick is precious, and the loss of even a single chick threatens the species survival as a whole. The numbers of threats to the loon are many and increasing.

During the past several years there been increasing numbers of reports of loons abandoning their nests, being frightened from lakes, or even being injured or killed by encounters with personal watercraft or high-speed boats. Personal watercraft can easily enter the shallow coves that are favored by nesting loons. The terrified loons may abandon the nest and never be seen again following a single, brief encounter. More than a 6-inch wake can in minutes swamp the nest and result in loss of the eggs. The timid loons don’t easily tolerate close disturbances from curious onlookers in boats and canoes, and a Loon frightened from its nest exposes the eggs to predators that constantly watch for opportunity, or exposes the eggs to the baking hot sun.

 With a little understanding and care from humans, loons and people can share the lakes. Loons have lived on these lakes for thousands of years. If humans stay back and watch loons from afar, both can do well. Loons can tolerate boats to within about 100 yards. Their natural curiosity may bring them closer if you’re lucky. Avoid approaching them directly and give them space. Most importantly, avoid nesting areas or artificial nesting islands marked with buoys.

If you see people harassing loons, report them to the Department of Natural Resources, or your local sheriff. Watercraft registration numbers are essential, and videotaping may make prosecution and conviction of such individuals more likely.

Your lake association and DNR or conservation group can monitor lake water for toxins. Keep a portion of your lake free from development, especially if you know the location of the nesting area. Keep boats and personal watercraft in good working order to avoid oil discharges into the water.

Join the Michigan Loon Preservation Association to keep updated on recent Loon statistics, behavior, numbers, and to support research. The MLPA is a non-profit, Michigan Audubon Society affiliate established over ten years ago. Please write to us at: Michigan Loon Preservation Association, c/o Michigan Audubon Society, 6011 West St Joseph Highway, Suite 403, Lansing, Michigan, 48917.