When Problems Arise for Loons

Sep 28, 2017

The loon is an iconic Northwoods wildlife species, and this time of year it can get into some trouble—sometimes due to human activities. In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist looks at some of the troubles encountered by loons.

I commonly receive calls from concerned boaters, lakeshore residents, and fishermen about seeing a loon with something colorful wrapped around its leg. While it is possible that the loon has a fishing lure stuck to it, it is also possible that it is one of the loons that have been fitted with color-coded leg bands as part of research done through Chapman University and the USGS. Over the past 22 years, there have been over 3,500 loons banded in Vilas, Oneida, Iron, Forest, Lincoln, and Langlade counties. Different bands and colors tell us information about the loon without recapturing it; they are often visible with the naked eye or binoculars.  Because they are shiny and brightly colored, they can be mistaken for bobbers and lures. In addition, some loons are fitted with a datalogger, attached by black zip bands, which can also look like tackle or trash. These transmitters do not harm the birds, and provide valuable data about loon migration. Loons also have a leg waggling behavior, where they lift a leg up high in the air above their back and wave it back and forth. Many people fear they are tangled up in something, but they are just exhibiting a natural behavior.

Another call about loons involves lead poisoning. They are fish eaters, and some fish have a lead sinker or jig head in them. The lead is absorbed and accumulates in the bloodstream, and the loon dies a slow death. If you see symptoms like a bird not eating/fishing, weak, very thin or gaunt, drooping wings or head, inability to fly, and green watery diarrhea, lead poisoning is likely. Note the location and call a rehabilitator right away.

I can also expect at least one report of a loon that ingested a musky fisherman’s sucker set each fall. Loon chicks hatched in the spring begin to forage for themselves this time of year, and they tend to get fooled easily by minnow sets and lifelike crankbaits. When someone discovers they have hooked a loon, their first instinct may be to cut the line. However, most musky fishermen have everything they need right in their boat to address the issue. If you hook a bird, and you get it boat side, you should use your landing net to capture the bird and get it into the boat. They need a long watery runway to take off, so they won’t be able to fly out of the boat. This can be tricky, because loons are a large bird, with a sharp beak and strong legs and wings, but taking action may save the loon’s life.  You can put a coat or towel over the bird to hold them down and keep them from thrashing. If you can see the hook and remove it with a pliers, you can release the bird back in the water. If not, if it has swallowed the hook or is hooked deep, it needs medical attention. 

Loons are protected, so once you boat the loon, you have a responsibility to contact the local wildlife staff, game warden, or wildlife rehabilitator. Most fishermen I know now carry cell phones or smart phones on them. I suggest to all hunters and fishermen that they program some numbers into their phone, including the Turn In Poachers hotline, local wildlife rehabilitator, and non-emergency dispatch phone number for the local sheriff’s department. If you don’t have the numbers, you can search them on a smartphone. Raptor Education Group, Inc (REGI) in Antigo and Wild Instincts Rehabilitation in Rhinelander * have trained staff and volunteers who are willing to drive to meet you to pick up an injured bird for treatment.

Finally, as temperatures begin to drop, and water begins to freeze, we sometimes get reports of beached loons. They will come in for a landing on what they think is a lake but is actually a parking lot or other flat area. They cannot walk very well and will not be able to get enough speed to take off. These birds need to be checked out for physical injury and returned to a large enough water body to let them get airborne.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

*After broadcast, the Northwoods Wildlife Center was added to this list.