TO RESCUE A LOON

The end of another week at The Nest turned quite eventful with news of a loon in need of rescue. The Friday morning of December 10, the National Loon Center received a concerned call from a local wildlife photographer about what appeared to be an iced-in loon on Cross Lake. Promptly, two NLC staff went to confirm the situation. From the safety of the road, they spotted the bird not far from the shore. It was indeed a juvenile loon and appeared to be in a relatively small pool of open water surrounded by ice. The staff took pictures to report to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officers as well as seek input from experienced rescuers, Linda and Kevin Grenzer, from Wisconsin.

a juvenile common loon sits in a small opening of water on icy Cross Lake
Juvenile common loon “iced in” on Cross Lake, photo by National Loon Center

Unlike most other birds, loons have dense instead of hollow bones to better dive deep underwater for food. Because of this, they have a relatively heavy body weight compared to their wing size. For a loon to take off from the water they essentially need a “runway,” as an airplane does. This runway is quite long, anywhere from 100–600 feet in length. When a loon remains on the water as winter approaches instead of migrating south towards the Gulf of Mexico it becomes “iced in.” The reason a loon is unable to migrate can be difficult to determine without physically examining the bird. In many cases, it is likely there is some sort of injury preventing the bird from flying. A loon may become injured during aggressive territorial battles with other loons or, tragically, from collisions with boats and other watercraft. There is also the possibility of lead poisoning. When lead jigs and sinkers are lost in the lakes, they sink to the bottom and can be swallowed by loons that use pebbles to grind up the fish they eat. Lead poisoned loons become disoriented and may fly poorly, even crash landing onto the ground. Untreated, the loon will sadly die within two or three weeks.

With all of these factors in mind, a loon rescue yields many unique challenges. The common loon holds a special place in the hearts of many people across the nation. As leaders in loon preservation, the National Loon Center will act as it can to protect this iconic national symbol. In the case of a loon rescue on ice, the situation becomes dangerous quickly and should be done by experienced professionals with specialized equipment.

Careful consideration goes into the decision to rescue a loon. First, the area of water the loon is in must be small enough to safely net the loon without it diving away. Proper equipment is needed to transport the loon without causing additional stress or injury. Rescues and transports can be stressful, albeit necessary, experiences for wildlife. An animal that is injured and under extreme stress can unfortunately die during transport. Thus, the rescue should take place only if a safe capture seems likely and a rehabilitation center has confirmed it can take the loon. Additionally, trained wildlife professionals will examine the bird upon rescue to determine if it is a viable candidate for rehabilitation, or if in fact it should be humanely euthanized.

A volunteer firefighter stands on the ice holding a net while a second firefighter is in the small hole of water attempting the loon rescue
Volunteer firefighters attempting a loon ice rescue on Cross Lake, photo from Crosslake Fire Department

Common loons are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 so rehabbers must have federal permits to admit and treat migratory birds. For the loon on Cross Lake, it was fortunately confirmed that the Wild and Free wildlife rehab center in Garrison, MN could take the loon. Given this confirmation and the relatively small pool of water the loon was in, a rescue seemed plausible. Thinking of the entire path the loon must travel, we also need to consider the likelihood of safe transport all the way to Florida or the Gulf of Mexico for loons that have missed the fall migration window.

The large size of the common loon, its dependence on open water, and its “captive feistiness” make it extremely difficult for them to survive for extended periods under human care. Loons that are weakened due to injury or stress are also susceptible to aspergillosis, a fungus-borne disease that affects the respiratory tract. Dr. Katie Barrato, a veterinarian with Garrison Animal Hospital and Wild and Free, who would treat the loon, has said that loons have been successfully flown to the Gulf before. If an injury is manageable or the levels of lead are low enough to be treated then the loon can be released. Unfortunately, Dr. Barrato stated the winter typically sees a higher number of unreleasable loons as those left behind frequently have a substantial injury preventing them from flying. In the cases of extreme injury, the most humane option can even be to euthanize the bird immediately. Though it is a difficult and sad reality to face, putting a bird through the stress and trauma of medical transport is not worth it if we know that bird cannot overcome its injury.

It is the heavy knowledge of these likelihoods that weighs into the decision to attempt a loon rescue. For a loon with an untreatable injury, the rescue takes it out of the natural food chain it is a part of. However, a loon with lead poisoning left on the lake can become a meal for bald eagles and subsequently poison our national bird. For the loon on Cross Lake the decision was ultimately made to rescue the loon and transport it to Wild and Free. As previously stated, ice rescues are dangerous and should not be attempted by the public. Fortunately, the Crosslake Volunteer Fire Department generously assisted in the rescue.

On Saturday, December 11, Crosslake’s fire chief coordinated an effort to have firefighters dressed in survival suits attempt to rescue the loon as a MN DNR conservation officer and local volunteer offered guidance and support from shore. After about half an hour, the firefighters successfully and safely got the loon into a net then into a suitable container to transport the loon. Loons are strong, heavy birds with sharp bills that make rescues even more tricky. Thankfully, the loon was able to be transported by volunteers to Dr. Barrato at Wild and Free.

MN DNR conservation officer, NLC volunteer, and two firefighters in survival suits stand along the icy shore of the lake behind the gray container holding the rescued loon.
MN DNR conservation officer, NLC volunteer, and Crosslake volunteer firefighters, photo from Crosslake Fire Department

When the loon was pulled out of the water it was immediately noticed that the loon had colored bands on its leg. In May 2021, the National Loon Center began an intensive research study of the MN loon population in collaboration with Dr. Walter Piper of the Loon Project. Dr. Piper’s team puts non-intrusive colored bands on the loons to track individuals throughout their long lives, monitor population dynamics, and estimate annual survival rates. Banding loons is essential to studying their population and behavioral ecology. Because of the unique set of bands on the loon rescued from Cross Lake we were able to know this male was banded as a chick on the night of July 17th on Rush Lake. According to Piper, “Copper-White” was the “biggest, healthiest juvenile we caught in Minnesota this year.”

A common loon sits on the lake with one of its back legs sticking out of the water showing a color red and orange band along with a silver federal band.
A common loon with color bands on its leg that was banded in the summer of 2021, photo from National Loon Center

Unfortunately, this loon’s fate was not the happy ending we would have hoped for. Dr. Barrato determined that he had serious, untreatable wing trauma. It appeared the end of his wing was sheared off by a motorboat or jet ski propeller. It’s possible this could have been an old injury from a predator though the nature of the injury seems more likely to be a boat propeller. The loon’s blood was also tested for lead and found not to have a high concentration. Ultimately, without the ability to fly the loon’s survival is unlikely and the most humane outcome for him was determined to be euthanasia. This is a sad loss for the loon population and for all those who marvel at the sight of loons on their lakes.

an x-ray of the chest and wings of the rescued common loon with a red arrow pointing at the wing injury
An x-ray of the loon shows where the wing was likely hit by a boat propeller. The wing is sheared at the metacarpal bone. Photo by Wild and Free rehab center.

The world is a daunting place for young loons. Many of us watch in awe as loon families grace our lakes, feeding and tending to their young. What we don’t always see is the many dangers the vulnerable chicks face from various predators, including intruding male loons wishing to take over a territory. Unfortunately, there is a high mortality rate of loons during their first years of life. When they do return to breeding grounds, they may spend two years on average searching for a territory to settle. Territorial battles among male loons can be extremely aggressive, even fatal.

The loon found on Cross Lake seemed to have good prospects of survival when it was first banded as it was the biggest chick banded during the summer and was already fairly independent. Sadly, even if a loon is a good, healthy size to defend itself from predators and other loons, it is no match for a large watercraft. May this be a somber reminder to us that as we recreate on our lakes we must always keep a watchful eye out for the loon families that also share these cherished waters.

The National Loon Center is grateful to continue to work with organizations such as Wildlife Rehabilitation & Release and the University of Minnesota Raptor Center’s Partners for Wildlife program as well as DNR permitted wildlife rehabilitators in statewide wildlife rescue efforts.

For more information about wildlife rehabilitation please visit:
Wildlife Rehabilitation & Release www.wrr-mn.org
Partners for Wildlife www.raptor.umn.edu/partnersforwildlife

If you wish to contribute toward the protections of loons and loon habitat, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the National Loon Center. www.nationallooncenter.org/national-loon-center-foundation

To support the rehabilitation and release efforts of Wild and Free in Garrison, MN, please visit: www.wildandfree.org

To read more from Dr. Walter Piper about the loon that became the subject of this piece, please visit the Loon Project website: www.loonproject.org/2021/12/16/left-behind

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National Loon Center

National Loon Center

The National Loon Center restores and protects loon breeding habitats, enhances responsible recreation, and catalyzes critical loon and freshwater research.