For the Birds Radio Program: Loons

Original Air Date: June 22, 1987

Loons are doing fairly well in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but are in trouble in Michigan.

Duration: 3′26″


(Recording of a Common Loon)

Minnesota and Wisconsin are abundant in natural riches that other states squandered long ago. Even those people who are least interested in wildlife get a thrill from hearing the eerie call of a loon.

(Recording of a Common Loon)

Loons live in the Northland from early April through early December. They winter along the southeastern coast, but down there they wear drab grayish feathers, saving their spectacular breeding plumage for the pristine lakes of North Country.

In Wisconsin and Minnesota, loon numbers are large and fairly secure. But next door in Michigan, loon numbers have plummeted so badly that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources recently classified the loon as threatened there. No one is exactly sure why loons have declined so dramatically in Michigan, but people pressure is surely the main culprit. Shoreline development destroys many loon nesting sites, because loons must nest within inches of the water’s edge–their legs are so far back on their bodies that they can’t walk on or take off in flight from land. A speeding motorboat leaves a wake that can drown loon chicks or dislodge a loon nest from shore, dumping eggs into the water. Some breeding loons occasionally leave their small lakes to go fishing in Lake Michigan–where increasing numbers of loons are caught in commercial fishermen’s nets. And the very popularity of loons is dangerous to their health–people who canoe up to a loon family may get a thrill from hearing the “loon laugh” at their approach, but this tremolo call is a response to severe stress. Stress itself can kill a loon, and frightened adults may leave their eggs or young for a few minutes, giving gulls, raccoons, or other predators a chance to sneak in and eat the babies. People who like to escape from city life to the solitude of a cabin on the lake usually quickly learn to respect a loon’s equal need for solitude. Fortunately, loons are big enough, and loud enough, to be enjoyed at a distance.

Loons are so popular in Minnesota that some people look for them in the wrong places–like on Peabody Street, where loon windsocks have been sprouting up like dandelions. Goose windsocks were originally developed for hunters, who used them to decoy geese down to fields. And as long as there’s a breeze, they make a rather pretty lawn decoration. But whoever got the idea to make loon windsocks clearly knew more about the buying habits of Minnesotans than they did about loons, which can’t do anything but flounder about helplessly on land. And if it isn’t pitiful enough to see all these poor grounded birds sitting forlornly on lawns, take a look at one when the breeze dies down and it flattens out like an empty sack of potatoes. Nope, if I want to see a loon, I’ll look out on a lake or up in the sky, not in somebody’s front yard.

(Recording of a Common Loon)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”