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Debbie Rolfsen Photo

Article by John Lehman

My wife and I recently moved from Sault Ste. Marie to a condo on the shore of Round Lake, a 330-acre lake midway between Petoskey and Harbor Springs. Here we enjoy the privilege of seeing and hearing the common loon—which is anything but a common sort of bird. Seeing loons up close was one of the most rewarding experiences I can remember from canoeing trips in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, so we consider ourselves lucky to enjoy the presence of loons without traveling to a wilderness area.

There has been a nesting pair of loons on Round Lake for some years, but this year no chicks hatched. Recently the resident male was chased away by a competitor, who presumably then mated with the female. So far the reconstituted pair hasn’t built a nest on the nesting island introduced by LoonCorps. The shake-up could be a good thing, since it suggests that Round Lake is good loon habitat, but no one can be certain that the new pair will breed successfully.

To me, the loon is one of nature’s greatest works of art. The head of a mature loon is jet black, with striking red eyes and a pointed black beak. On the neck is a wedge-shaped band of narrow zebra-like vertical stripes over a solid black ring. The breast is white in front, with curved zebra stripes behind merging into a black back checkered with squarish white blobs. An artist might describe a loon as a harmonious composition of contrasting black-and-white patterns.

The varied calls of the loon are equally unique. They include a wavering tremolo that may either indicate danger or announce a loon’s arrival at a lake; a yodeling call that males use to warn other loons to keep off their territory; and an eerie wail that helps loons locate one another. The unearthly sound of loon calls suggests that loons are ancient birds, and they are. Loons were around when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, around 35 million years ago.

Despite a torpedo-shaped body that enables it to fly at nearly 100 mph and dive to depths of 200 feet, the loon has a design flaw—legs that are so far back on the body that a has to run across the surface of the water for hundreds of yards to become airborne. Loons can barely walk at all on land, so a loon that mistakes an ice-covered road for water may be stranded and die.

It’s encouraging to know that loons can survive in places close to human habitation as well as wilderness areas, but there are a number of situations that threaten their continued existence. Loons are carnivores who eat mostly fish and other aquatic creatures, so they may ingest lead sinkers swallowed by fish and die of lead poisoning. They may also ingest discarded lead sinkers along with the small stones they eat to grind food for digestion. Shoreline development, dredging and filling of lakes and rivers, and the presence of pollutants such as fertilizer runoff can damage a habitat to the point where loons can no longer breed or survive. PWCs and other watercraft can drive loons from their nesting sites, wash eggs and chicks off a nest with their wakes, and even run over and kill them. And commercial fishing boats occasionally catch loons in their nets.

Scientists believe that human activities are driving many organisms to extinction, a process that threatens to eliminate 20 to 50 percent of all organisms on Earth by the end of this century. If true, there may be no loons left by the end of the 21st century—unless we make a concerted effort to save them. If the loon does go extinct as a result of human actions, we will be losing a beautiful creature that has been on earth for 35 million years—far longer than humans have existed.

Yes, mass extinctions have occurred in the past and the extinction of some organisms is unavoidable, but as the caretakers of this earth, we should consider ourselves responsible for protecting as much as we can of the natural world. After all, humans also have to live on an earth that is rapidly being degraded by human actions, and the harm that we do has the potential to make earth uninhabitable even to our own kind. If the loons go, will we be far behind?

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Debbie Rolfsen Photo

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