Call of the Wild: Loons
Having taken the smaller bird’s measure in this way, the intruder set about taking his territory. They wing-rowed back and forth in a high-speed chase across and around the pond, wheeling and churning over the surface. Throughout the afternoon, each time the smaller bird slowed, the intruder pounced.
Eventually too tired to continue fleeing, the smaller male turned to fight. The two birds locked bills. They pummeled each other with powerful wings, each hit sounding like a fist finding bone. Again and again, the bigger bird grabbed hold of the other’s neck and pulled him underwater.
With darkness coming on, eight hours after the confrontation began, they disappeared beneath the surface one last time. Only the bigger male reappeared.
We hoped the little male would somehow survive, but the numbers are brutal: In 40 percent of such territorial battles, the defending male is killed. (Females wage territorial battles, as well, but rarely to the death.) A few minutes later, the big male and the female were swimming placidly side by side, looking for all the world like a couple.
People once thought loons mated for life because they’d see two adult birds on the same nest site year after year. But banding and field observations have shown that those adults aren’t necessarily the same pair. In the loon hierarchy, territory comes before mate. A loon that lives its full span of 20 to 30 years might raise a dozen chicks, but only if it’s strong and determined enough to defend its territory.
By the Fourth of July, I’ve been won over by the big male. I see him on the nest and see persistence, along with the strength and size, and perhaps also a wisdom born of experience. Now I call the female “the flighty young thing.” When the male yodels at her, I swear I see her toss her head and glide away.
On the last day of the holiday weekend, I hear a call of alarm from the pond. I run down to the dock. The male continues wailing. The female hovers close to the nest. He’s getting his break at last, I think, lowering the binoculars. Something catches my eye, and I raise the glasses just in time to see a fuzzy black chick the size and shape of a Ping-Pong ball tumble from the nest into the water.
I yell up to the house and Jim comes running down. “We have a chick!” I tell him. “We?” he asks.
I’m floating, along with the new parents. But I notice that they aren’t returning to the second egg. By the end of the day, it’s clear they’ve abandoned it. (The next day, Susie Burbidge will collect the egg for possible testing.) There will be no second chick.
That night, more wails and yodels jolt me out of bed. I stand at the open window, straining to hear. A lone bullfrog booms, then a whole chorus. I wonder, Do they eat loon chicks? I suddenly, viscerally, feel all the dangers ahead, the snapping turtles, bald eagles, lead fishing tackle. Three months before that little ball of fluff can feed itself fully, can fly.
Somewhere out in the dark, the loons are trying to protect their chick. I think, Your care is what stands between your baby and death. No one–nothing–will care as much as you do whether it survives or thrives. It occurs to me that a loon’s drive to establish territory is a proxy for the real attachment: The crucial bond is between the pair and their offspring. Loons fight for the chance to be parents. They stay together for the children.
The good news from our little pond masks troubling, even drastic, recent declines on some of the region’s biggest and wildest North Country lakes: Moosehead, Rangeley, Winnipesaukee, and, especially, Squam, for so many years North America’s poster lake for loons. The crisis seemed to come in the night, and it followed no logic.
On Squam, nesting pairs left the lake at the end of one successful breeding season and didn’t return the next. The loss of seven pairs from 2004 to 2005 represented nearly half of Squam’s breeding loons and reduced the lake’s overall population to the level of 30 years earlier, when Rawson Wood organized LPC’s first field season.
The problems quickly spread down the generations. In 2003, 15 chicks had survived on Squam to the end of the summer. Two years later, only four fledged; the next year only three. In 2007, a single chick survived. LPC staffers had to sift through their records all the way back to 1978 to find a year when Squam’s famous waters had produced only one chick.
Other big lakes charted similar perplexing declines. Umbagog, a sprawling lake in forested northern New Hampshire and extending into Maine, had claimed the highest concentration of nesting loons in the state. No chicks hatched there in 2007. In Maine, where an estimated 4,000 adult loons make up the largest population in the Northeast, biologists from the BioDiversity Research Institute (BRI) found that reproductive success had tanked in most breeding areas, from Down East to the Rangeley Lakes.