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Sam Cook, Published July 06 2008

Crazy about loons

Loons are faring well in Minnesota.

Minnesota’s loon population is estimated at about 12,000, the most loons of any state in the Lower 48.

The population is stable to slowly increasing, said Carrol Henderson, nongame wildlife program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Only Alaska has more loons than Minnesota.

The last loon population estimate was made in 1989, but annual loon surveys have been made each year since 1994.

“To say that nothing has changed in 20 years is about as good as it gets,” said Rich Baker, nongame research coordinator for the Minnesota DNR.

Want to monitor loons?

In Minnesota, volunteers monitor lakes they live on or visit frequently. To volunteer, contact Pam Perry with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at (218) 828-2228 or pam.perry@dnr.state.mn.us

Those bones are heavy

While most birds have hollow bones, loons have solid bones. That helps them dive as deep as 250 feet in search of food. Loons can remain under water for up to five minutes but typically dive for 45 seconds to one minute at a time.

Because loons have such heavy bodies in comparison to their wing size, they need a long “runway” to take off. Without a headwind, loons sometimes run and flap across a lake for several hundred yards before gaining flight or giving up.

Loons and lead

Although loon populations are stable in Minnesota, some loons die as a result of ingesting lead sinkers or jigs used by anglers. One lead sinker can be enough to poison a loon. Loons with lead poisoning sometimes fly poorly, crash-land or stagger onto the ground. Ultimately, the loon quits feeding and stays behind when other loons migrate.

In Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency sponsors a lead tackle exchange in which anglers can get free samples of nontoxic tackle whey they turn in lead tackle.

Under a program sponsored by the PCA and the DNR, anglers can also acquire lead-free tackle from sporting goods stores.

The official bird

The loon is Minnesota’s official state bird. Laura Erickson, Duluth ornithologist and host of the “For the Birds” radio program, has lobbied to have the chickadee named Minnesota’s “official emergency auxiliary backup state bird,” to serve during the six months of every year when loons have flown the coop and are not fulfilling their responsibilities.

“Being state bird is just about as important as being a British monarch,” Erickson says. “Sure, the queen is – well, the queen. But when she’s not around, the country still has a prince to fulfill the royal duties. As with any figurehead, a state bird needs to have a next-in-line to make sure all those figurehead duties aren’t being shirked.”

To date, state legislators have taken no action on Erickson’s proposal.

Loon nesting platforms

On some lakes, the loon population has been increased by providing artificial nesting platforms for the birds. These platforms float on the lake and are anchored to the bottom. They offer protection from predators and from changing water levels on lakes.

“Part of the reason I think we have such a strong population [of loons] is that there are quite a few lakes where people have taken the initiative to put out loon nesting platforms,” said Carrol Henderson, nongame wildlife program supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The platforms may be made of wood or aluminum. Often, lake associations raise money or provide money to put out nesting platforms, Henderson said.

A loon nesting platform may not be right for your lake. Check with your nearest DNR wildlife official for advice.

Sam Cook is the outdoors writer for the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, a Forum Communications newspaper

Did you know?

- Loons eat about two pounds of fish every day.

- A loon can fly about 70 mph.

- Loons are typically 6 years old at first nesting.

- A loon can live to be 25 to 30 years old.

- An adult loon weighs 8 to 12 pounds.

- A loon is about 30 inches long and has a five-foot wingspan.

- Loons nest at water’s edge because they have trouble walking on land. They prefer to nest on islands and in backwaters protected from wave action.

- Loon chicks often ride on their parents’ backs during the first three weeks of life. They do so to conserve energy and stay warm, as well as for protection from predators such as northern pike and eagles.

- Predators such as raccoons, otters, mink, gulls, crows and ravens will eat loon eggs if a nest is left unprotected.

- Loon chicks in northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin are hatched in June.

- The red in the loon’s eye helps it to see under water.

Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College