If you live on a lake, or even if you don’t, your favorite wild creature might well be a loon. I’ve often wondered: What benignly demented sort of deity would create such a thing as a loon, to captivate us with musical calls and bewitch us with glowing red eyes set in deep black?
Forty years ago, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College started a project called LoonWatch to “protect common loons and their aquatic habitats through education, monitoring, and research.”
A highlight of last month’s Wisconsin Lakes Convention in Stevens Point was a panel discussion about LoonWatch in honor of its 40th anniversary. Luminaries from the program’s early days shared their stories, and then audience members asked them questions. Out of all that came fascinating facts about loons which I’ll recount here, in no particular order.
Care to guess how many loons there are in the world? There are about 643,000, the vast majority in Canada, but healthy numbers in the Great Lakes states. Wisconsin’s population is about 4,350, up from about 2,350 in 1985.
If you are wondering where our Wisconsin loons are now as we wait for the ice to leave the lakes, they’re staging on big rivers like the Wisconsin where the water is open, and on lakes farther south. Once our lakes open up, they’ll be here, calling out for what certainly must be joy.
Loons have a “divorce rate” of about seven percent. They are largely monogamous birds, but males compete with each other – viciously – for females. An aggressive interloper can break up a couple, and among males evicted from relationships, about three in 10 ultimately die. Those least likely to be ousted are the largest males with the loudest calls.
Loons feed voraciously, mostly on small fish. A loon family – mom, dad, and chick – will eat a combined 1,500 pounds of fish in a season. That seems like a lot, and it is, but it’s no threat to our fisheries.
Loons generally need a home lake of at least 30 acres because, their bodies being much heavier than those of most birds, they need a lot of “runway” to become airborne and escape for the winter.
Speaking of migration, most loons from the Great Lakes states first stopover on the northern part of Lake Michigan, then on the southern end. After that, they take off for the Gulf of Mexico in “hops” of 600 to 700 miles, at 60 to 70 miles an hour. They tend to time their travel to catch strong tailwinds out of the north. That is, the “gales of November” that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald help speed the loons on their way.
Nesting loons warm and incubate their eggs (one or two) with their webbed feet. This is a good reason not to startle a loon sitting on a nest: in a reflex reaction, it could kick an egg out of the nest and into the water.
Now that I know a little more about loons than I did before, I’m all the more eager to have them back here on my lake. I’ll bet you feel the same.
Ted Rulseh, who lives on Birch Lake in Harshaw, is the author of The Lake Where You Live, a blog where readers can learn about the lakes they love—the history, geology, biology, chemistry, physics, magic, charm.