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Call of the Wild: Loons

Successful but highly specialized, loons ended up occupying a lone evolutionary limb. Roughly 50 million years ago, the five species of loons branched off from their nearest genetic relatives, a group that includes albatrosses. More recently, geologically speaking–several million years ago–retreating glaciers filled freshwater lakes across northern North America. Fish followed, and loons followed the fish. On lakes, adult loons faced few natural predators. They developed a migratory pattern that endures to this day: breeding on fresh water, wintering on the ocean, returning year after year to the same territories.

I dwell on their evolution because recent DNA sampling has revealed a striking lack of genetic diversity among common loons, suggesting that they squeezed through a genetic bottleneck around 10,000 years ago. This ancient species that has adapted so long and so well is vulnerable to a single large-scale event–and even to incremental changes in its environment.

When humans appeared on the North American continent, loons were there. Native Americans made a totem of the bird; to be called “loon-hearted” honored that person’s courage and wisdom. Native stories described mystical connections between loons and human beings. In an Ojibwa creation story, Loon was the very voice of the Creator in spirit form. Loon loved the first man and saved him from drowning, an act of generosity that allowed the human species to survive.

All but 1 percent of the world population of common loons breed in North America, most of them in Canada. They’re birds of the North American Far North.

“Far North” once extended farther south into the United States. European settlers reported loons throughout New England, down into Pennsylvania, and across the Midwest. In the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau studied loons on Walden Pond. He called their wails “perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here.” But fishermen didn’t see a mystical symbol when they saw loons–they saw competition. A family of four loons may eat 900 pounds of fish over a breeding season. A century ago, anglers arriving at Northeastern lakes routinely began their fishing trips by shooting every loon in sight.

The places that appealed to loons appealed to people, too, especially as we sought out lakes for recreation. But while we say that the presence of loons is a sign of a pristine environment, from a loon’s perspective our presence is the sign of a degraded one. On lake after lake in the southern part of their range, people would arrive, and loons would leave.

By the 1950s, the cry of the loon hadn’t been heard in Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts for nearly a century. The southern edge of its breeding range crept across the borders of New Hampshire and Vermont and continued northward. Some wildlife experts were already conceding the loss of loons everywhere in New England outside of Maine. The Ojibwa story might now be told in reverse: Loons were going to survive in New England only with the help of human beings.

The man who would save New England’s loons was born at a time of profound, sometimes violent, extremes in American attitudes about wildlife. When Rawson Wood was born into a prominent New York family in 1908, the nation’s first federal bird reservations, which would form the basis of the National Wildlife Refuge system, had been established by President Theodore Roosevelt five years earlier, and interstate trade in the decorative plumage of protected birds had been outlawed for nearly a decade. Yet the “Feather Wars” persisted: Hunters illegally slaughtered hundreds of thousands of birds each year, along with the stray ranger or conservationist who got in their way.

Wood’s fate and that of loons would intersect at a singular place: Squam Lake in central New Hampshire. Wood’s family summered on these island-filled bays and coves, spread seven miles along the corrugated southern edge of the Great Northern Forest. The lake’s summer residents practiced a privileged restraint–bringing their maids, cooks, and handymen with them, perhaps, but also building their rough-pine camps back from shore and hidden from view. The lake’s wild feel was part of its appeal, and a part of that wildness was seeing and hearing those ancient birds.

Squam’s summer residents had founded the country’s first formal lake association in 1904, pledging to protect the area from “pollution and misuse.” Frustrated by varying water levels that flooded their cottages or dry-docked their boats, association members threw in some money and bought the downstream dam–and in so doing stabilized water levels for nesting loons. They used their money to block any hint of development, whether a new hotel or a public boat launch, and coincidentally conserved long stretches of shoreline. Families returned to the lake year after year, over generations, fiercely protecting their territory. Their self-interest had the effect of protecting prime loon habitat.

But it wasn’t enough. In time, Wood started bringing his own five children to Squam and noticed fewer loons on the lake. In the 1960s he tried to do something about it; he wrote to state officials, headed up the lake association’s conservation committee, became active in the Audubon Society of New Hampshire. When a speeding motorcraft ran down two loon chicks, Wood paid to print posters and leaflets promoting boating safety.

Despite his efforts, Squam’s loon population continued to slip. In 1975, Wood hired a biologist to conduct the first-ever full-season field study of loons on Squam and nearby Lake Winnipesaukee. The study quantified Wood’s fears: Loons on Squam successfully fledged just three chicks; on Winnipesaukee, only one chick survived the summer.

That same year, in a story that has the polish of legend among loon people, Rawson Wood stood to his full six-foot-plus height at an Audubon board meeting and announced that he was forming a committee for the preservation of loons. The committee would be self-funded, and he would chair it. He sat down, and that was that.

Wood’s vision of the Loon Preservation Committee (LPC) was simple and audacious. The new organization would concentrate solely on loons. It would count every adult, every nest, and every chick on Squam and on every other lake in New Hampshire. It would collect data on those loons. And it would use those data to learn how to protect them.

This combination of broad-based science and intensive on-the-ground management was refined on Squam. Field biologists funded out of Wood’s deep khaki pockets determined that raccoons, drawn by garbage bins and roadside trash, were robbing eggs from shoreline nests. Wood sent a worker to help build log rafts, four feet on a side. LPC crews covered them with soil and vegetation and anchored them offshore, out of raccoon reach. Loons adopted the floating nests. Chicks hatched–and this type of successful human intervention was picked up by other organizations.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Monday, June 20th, 2011

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2 Responses to Call of the Wild: Loons

  1. Alice Huppert March 22, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    Sir: I read the very interesting article about loons. Can you help? We try each summer to visit places that loons inhabit from New Hampshire to Maine– as far as Umbagog and Katahdin. We see very few and hear even less! My first experience hearing loons was a very breathtaking one (In 2005). I’d heard it during the night and asked the manager in the morning what bird it was I’d heard. He told me “those are the loons.” From there on I have been almost hypnotized by them. At a loon store in New Hampshire (near Squam Lake) I purchased a teaching CD on loons. I play it frequently, especially in the dead of winter.

    I have a question: Will it be much too early to return to SquamLake near the end of April? OR where would you suggest we visit this spring/summer to almost assure us we will hear them?

    Thank you so very much for your reply!

    Alice Huppert

  2. Ed Warren September 24, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    Alice, I am replying to a 3 year old inquiry. Every summer we rent a “lean-to” in Vermont’s Groton State Park at Ricker Pond campground. Ever since 2006 there have loons that call out in the early morning hours. We have seen their young. And we have even seen them fly over head.

    You must see “On Golden Pond”! It was filmed on Squam Lake.

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