The Loon Still Sings

On their migratory journey south during late fall and winter, beautiful Common Loons, one of the oldest, most primitive of birds known, fly singly or in groups from Canada and the Northeastern United States in search of warmer waters along the Atlantic or the Gulf Coast. When one shows up at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport, because someone found it beached or on the ground, the staff and volunteers at the shelter know it’s more than likely a very bad and probably lethal situation. We pray for a fishing gear injury because we consider that a blessing in a Loon’s case. Untangling line, removing hooks and treating wounds, we can definitely do something about. It’s also not too bad if a migrating Common Loon accidentally lands, softly, on a wet highway or parking lot, mistaking it for a river or lake. A loon may also get stranded on a small pond. In either of those situations, the Loon doesn’t have enough open water for a long take-off because they need a running start, sometimes as much as 400 yards, paddling furiously through the water to take flight. Their legs are placed far back on their bodies which are very good for swimming but does not enable them to walk on land, only awkward scooting by thrusting its chest forward a few inches and dragging both legs back underneath their body. So, most people think they’ve come upon an injured bird when they see the Loon can’t stand up or move about on land. The worst diagnosis, and unfortunately the most common with Loon admits, is mercury or lead poisoning. Loons born in the Northeast are exposed to large quantities of methylmercury, the form of mercury toxic to living things. These birds are particularly vulnerable to environmental poisoning for many reasons. They are long-lived, up to 30 years, and they spend their lives in the water, feeding mostly on fish, but also crustaceans, frogs, and aquatic insects. Loons are divers and can dive up to 250 feet, and a typical foraging dive lasts about 40 seconds. They are large, aquatic birds, with wing spans approaching four feet, which are relatively small in comparison to their thick bodies. A Loon is heavy and dense because their bones are not hollow like most other birds. The portly waterfowl’s white belly stays submerged when swimming and then propels itself with its feet underwater to spot and catch fish. It swallows most of its prey before surfacing. The loon has sharp, rearward-pointing projections on the roof of its mouth and tongue that helps keep a firm hold on slippery fish. Loons spend most of their life on and in the water, only wriggling ashore to mate, incubate eggs, potty and occasionally escape a storm.
As with most birds, the males are much more colorful with a dark head and red eyes, a greenish-black throat band and distinctive white spots on their back and sides. The females are more muted gray with pale mottling but share the white belly. Loons mate for life and typically produce two eggs each year. Incubation takes about 28 days, and the parents share nest duty. During the first week, chicks may crawl onto the back of a parent which is paddling along on the water’s surface. Chicks stay very close to the parents for the first three weeks, and respond immediately to calls warning of raptorial birds (or airplanes) flying overhead by scrambling under an adult’s wing. The chicks grow very rapidly and are nearly the size of the adults within four to six weeks. They also begin to demonstrate their independence by seeking their own food, diving, and exercising their wing muscles. The youngsters retain their dull grey back plumage during that time, although the belly turns white. Some people describe the Loon’s call as eerie or an unearthly tremolo cry, but to me, they sing a beautiful song that awakens a sense of wilderness. Rather than a cry or wail, it’s more like a melancholy yodel. You always know when a loon is present at our shelter, they sing even in captivity, unlike other animals that tend to go silent in the unnatural environment of close human presence, a building or kennel cab. Although difficult to describe, it’s impossible to forget their sound. Depending upon the reason they are being treated, their song can sound happy or sad, but that’s totally a human’s assessment based on knowing the odds, otherwise, it would always be a soothing melody to me. In cases of toxic poisoning, the best we can do is make them comfortable with frequent tub baths and extra padding to lessen chest compression when kenneled, give the Loons time to build up their strength with healthy fish feedings and monitor their weight. We also flush them with fluids to try to rid the gut of mercury buildup, which may not help much if the mercury has already metastasized to organs and body tissues. If they manage to maintain weight or even better, put on weight, we will joyfully and eagerly release them to continue their journey. If, despite ravenously feeding on their own, they rapidly lose weight, it is apparent they are starving from malabsorption caused by chemical poisoning and sadly, will not make it. It’s a tough reality faced by all who work at the shelter, but we manage to approach each treatment plan in an optimistic and positive manner. By providing the best care we can and with a few fingers crossed, we hopefully think this one will make it and in rare, very rare instances, one will.

Keep singing,
Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of
“Save Them All”
now available as ebook