Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.
South Vermont Hill Road, Holland, N.Y.

Species Profile:  The Loon
by Michael Olek

Dawn was just approaching. Barely visible on the horizon, the first light of day provided a backdrop silhouetting the distant tree line. It was still too dark to distinguish objects, though I could see the surface of the lake that lay before me. As night gave way to the cool misty morning, I watched thick columns of fog slowly rise from the stillness of the lake. Like ghosts, they hovered hanging in the tranquil silence of the woods around me. Suddenly an eerie vibrato echoed through the brisk morning air. The silence of the fading night had been abruptly shaken by the shrill tremolo of a loon's call.  An instantaneous shiver passed through me, simultaneously bringing a smile to my face. The yodeling cry of the loon, the aroma of the cool, damp forest, and the spectacle of the lake in the morning deeply moved me. I felt as though I was experiencing a harmonized orchestration of a piece played from a long ago era. Nothing in comparison can strike a chord in one's heart so dramatically to announce our wilderness as this birds' call reverberating through the woods.

Unfortunately, like a page out of time, many will never know this spectacular wonder. This bird is disappearing from much of our New York landscape. Something that was once known so well by our ancestors will have to be read about by our followers, if mankind does not take action. The Common Loon (Gavia immer) is a large, heavy boned bird. Summer plumage is black with white specks. It is about 25 to 30 inches long and weighs an average of between 2.5 to 4.5 lbs. This bird was once a common resident in many of New York's lakes. The largest remaining strongholds in New York are concentrated in the great lakes, our Adirondack area, and the Catskills. Acid precipitation has destroyed much of the food chain in some of our Adirondack lakes.

Loons feed almost exclusively on fish. They dive and stayLoon in its Natural Environment submerged for several minutes in pursuit of their meals. The name loon is sometimes thought to have come from its eerie, crazy call. Actually, it came from the language of the Shetland Islands. Loom, meaning lame, describes the birds' inability to walk around on the land. These birds spend almost their entire lives on water occasionally coming out on shore, just at the water's edge. Their legs and webbed feet are set farther back on their bodies, making them excellent swimmers, but rendering them helpless on land. They need several yards of open water to run across to get air borne.  A loon that lands on solid ground, unless discovered and rescued, is a goner for sure.

During nesting season, loons usually lay one or two olive green to brown eggs on a nest of floating plant debris, just at the edge of shore. If not disturbed, the semi-precocial young hatch in between 26 to 31 days. They are able to swim at two days of age but generally ride on their mother's back. The young are unable to fly until they are at least 75 days old. Across their range, loons are falling victim to loss of habitat, lead and mercury poisoning, and failed nesting due to recreational boating in breeding areas. In the past year and a half, I have sent 3 loons that died of lead poisoning to the New York State Wildlife Pathology lab. All three had ingested a small lead fishing spilt shot or jig head, which caused their demise within a few days. In order to dive and stay submerged, loons swallow stones for ballast. As they forage for these stones they may pick up a small lead fishing sinker. To watch one of these beautiful creatures die, despite all of our efforts, leaves me feeling helpless, frustrated, and angered. Symptoms include a light green watery feces, lethargy, weakness, no appetite, an inability to hold up their head, then finally coma and death.

Injured Loon in RehabOn admission, we immediately need to irrigate their GI tract with aggressive fluid therapy, and administer injections of Calcium E.D.T.A.  Even then, survival is slim. Nationally, 1.5 to 3 million waterfowl die each year from lead poisoning. Since 1980, over 60 Bald Eagles acquired secondary poisoning from consuming infected waterfowl. In 1991, a law was passed making lead shot in shotgun shells illegal. As yet, lead fishing equipment is still legal. Acid precipitation accounts for the starvation of 35% to 62% of the young annually. While their parents are able to fly to other lakes to find food, the young cannot. Anyone who has ever heard their call or witnessed their antics on a quiet lake, has a life long memory to cherish. It would be a tragedy to lose this bird to extinction. It is one of those natural gifts that symbolize the call of the wild.

As a final note: In October of 1992, the Federation of Fly Fishers, the North American Loon Fund, and the Trumpeter Swan Society had petitioned EPA to regulate lead fishing sinkers. The petition documented lead poisoning of common loons, trumpeter swans, cranes, ducks, grebes, herons, cormorants, egrets, osprey, and eagles. Since then, court actions have resulted in "regulatory investigations." On June 19th, 1998 New Hampshire has banned some lead fishing tackle. Other states are still involved in enacting various levels of legislation. In 1987, Great Britain banned all use of lead sinkers and jig heads. They now use a putty-like substance that can be squeezed onto fishing lines, or tackle made of bismuth, tin, or steel, which do not seem to pose an unreasonable environmental risk.

To obtain more information, and to help become an educated environmental voter, it would be wise to write to the Environmental Defense Fund, 257 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010 or email them at You can also write to the American Sport Fishing Association, 1033 North Fairfax, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314.

Copyright 2000 Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.

This species profile is copyrighted and may only be reprinted with the express permission of Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.

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Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.
P.O. Box 508
Orchard Park, New York  14127

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