Call of the Wild: Loons
The rafts were working. The education was working. Rawson Wood, in his 90s emeritus director of LPC, was still working. The loon–symbol of wild northern places, of the wealthy elite, of successful science–remained on New Hampshire’s threatened-species list, but the talk was of a species that had re-established itself across the southern part of its range. With the help of people like Rawson Wood, it appeared to be on the way to recovery.
The Fourth of July holiday arrives. Any day now, the eggs should hatch. I’ve been keeping anxious watch, checking on the nest each morning and throughout the day. Every time I look out, a loon is there. The constancy of the sitting–in rain, in wind, in heat–strikes me as real work.
“There are no single parents among loons,” Eric Hanson had told me. But it’s looking to me as if the male is getting stuck with all the nest duty, while the female floats and fishes in the open water off the grassy point. The male seems to think so, too, because he occasionally yodels with no predator in sight, no eagle or small airplane passing overhead. (That piercing yodel, plus his greater size, distinguishes the male from the female.) This guy, to my anthropomorphizing ear, is clearly directing his complaints to his mate: Hey! I’ve been on this lumpy bed of reeds for six hours. Your turn with the eggs!
For a time, we called the male “the intruder.” The female had first arrived on the pond in the company of a smaller mate, and we’d initially attached our hopes to that pair. Then the larger male intruded on their idyll. I saw the two males face off: They peered and dipped, rose up, spread their wings, and thrust out their chests, the white flashing in the sun. It appeared at first to be a graceful pas de deux, but the movements were no dance.
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.