Allan Bell’s Birch Bark Nature Notes Revisited: For the love of loons

People say he’s “crazy as a loon” or “you’re loony,” meaning foolish, silly or demented. I hope this reference is to the loon’s behavior when disturbed, a display of wildly beating wings and walking on the water. Sometimes, vocal accompaniment of crazy laughter may be heard. To most, the loon is the symbol of the wilderness with its haunting tremelo.

Woody Hagge gave an interesting presentation on the loon at a meeting of the Izaak Walton League in Minocqua. He also showed a film, “Legacy of the Loon,” with some remarkable footage of loons, birds and animals. If you get a chance, don’t miss it.

Humans have only inhabited this wonderful planet for about FOUR million years. The loons have been around for about 100 million years. How many glaciers have changed the landscape in that time? How many times have these birds had to find new territories, develop new life styles? The last glacier in our area was only 10,000 years ago, so all of the lakes in the north are only that old. Did they go farther south then? Anyway, after managing to survive all that time, in just the last 100 years, people have contributed serious problems to jeopardize their continued survival.

Perhaps the greatest problem is too many people, leading to too much shoreline development, too much activity on the water. A hundred years ago, loons nested in every county in Wisconsin. Now, they nest only in a narrow band of counties north of Lincoln and only number about 2,500 in Wisconsin. One-third of this number are in Oneida and Vilas Counties alone. So, just because we may see quite a few, don’t think there are lots of them.

In just the last 14 years the population of Vilas County has increased more than 50%. Likely, most of this increase is on water frontage. Loons are territorial: Generally, only one pair is found on each lake, except for very large bodies of water. See the problem? More boats, more harassment, more pollution, more camping, more marinas, more motors, more traffic. Less room for loons.

Most birds have light, strong, hollow bones with truss-like internal bracing, enabling them to glide and soar, seemingly endlessly. Loons have dense bones, heavy bodies and narrow wings. Takeoffs are a real struggle, requiring long runways. Once airborne, they are swift and powerful flyers, cruising up to 80 miles per hour. They may make non-stop flights to and from their wintering grounds, probably off the coast of Florida.

They are early arrivals, often showing up the day the ice goes out, and staying until freeze-up. Eggs are laid in May or June – NOW – usually two, and hatch in 28 to 31 days. The most critical time is those four weeks when the loons are on the nest (mom and dad take turns). Even unsuspecting fisherpersons can cause the loon to leave the nest, exposing the eggs to crows and gulls just waiting for the chance for an omelet. Or the warm eggs may cool, killing the embryo inside. PLEASE – Do Not Disturb!

When frightened off the nest, the loon may engage in a fascinating display from its extreme agitation. They are highly susceptible to stress and if you see this, it is requested that you retreat – immediately.

The Memorial Day holiday is an especially bad time with the added influx of boaters and water skiers. Wakes created can wash away or damage low-lying nests constructed in the water or at the very edge. The placement of the loon’s feet, far back on its streamlined hull, while wonderful for propelling the bird as it dives for fish, frogs and crayfish, makes it extremely difficult for the bird to walk on land.

If the first nesting is unsuccessful, a new attempt may be made. Guess what? This new nesting period falls during another holiday, the 4th of July. More trauma for the birds.

A new hazard is monofilament line. The loon, diving for all its food, encounters discarded, snagged or broken off line. Wings become entangled, making flight impossible. If trapped below the surface, the bird will drown in five or 10 minutes. Death from lead poisoning has also been observed in a bird ingesting just ONE large lead swivel sinker.

So, they’ve got lots of problems. All of them are US. Give them room. Give them a chance for the SECOND 100 million years. Let’s always be able to hear that WILDERNESS WAIL.



Late nature writer Allan Bell wrote this Birk Barch Nature Notes column for the Tomahawk Leader back on May 16, 1984. Those looking to get out of the house and enjoy some time in the great outdoors can visit the Allan Bell Birch Bark Notes Memorial Nature Trail. The trailhead is located in the Tomahawk High School parking lot and the interpretive trail featuring a number of kiosks showcasing the landscape and critters that can be spotted along the one-mile loop can make for a fun field trip for the entire family.

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