June 14 – 20, 2019Vol. 21, No. 2

What To Do With a Dead Loon

by Kay Overfield

Memorial Day weekend 2019: We canoed out of our bay towards the swampy area and spotted a loon sitting on a nest. We kept our distance knowing that if a frightened loon leaves the nest, it usually doesn't return. Paddling back later, we were surprised to see two loons sitting on the nest, side by side. Never saw that before. We knew the birds take turns during the incubation period — 4 to 6 weeks — but it was sweet to see the togetherness. I'd like to think they were the same pair we watched last year, and hope they have better luck with their chick(s) this summer.

Summer 2018: Last year, two chicks hatched, but neither survived. We watched the loons for weeks waiting for the chicks to hatch, and finally one morning, there was Mom loon swimming by with two downy chicks on her back. They developed quickly eventually swimming on their own, and diving. Then … one of the babies disappeared. There had been raucous loon chatter the night before, the cry of alarm called a tremolo. In the morning there was just one chick swimming with the parents. It was fortunate two chicks hatched so one could survive. In the loon population only one in four will survive to adulthood.

Days later, we noticed that mother and remaining baby were hanging around the same spot, not ranging very far, and she appeared to be trying to get the chick on her back. It was quite big by now. We worried that it might be injured.

On July 17, we found the baby dead on the shore in our little bay. The two adult loons were staying close to shore, near their dead chick. Our neighbors joined us at the beach, and we all felt as though we were attending a wake. After a bit, we walked away to let the adult loons mourn for a while. They swam back and forth, like worried parents — pacing, stopping now and then to look at their chick on the shore. Their voices were subdued and mournful.

Meanwhile, I took to the computer and asked Google what to do with a dead loon. They listed the number of the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine. They collect dead loons to study the cause of death because the loon populations are diminishing. Avian Haven was also listed. It is a rehab facility that can answer questions about sick or injured loons and provide guidance. The Institute advised that we double bag the bird and put it in the freezer till someone could come for it.

No one volunteered to put the dead bird in their freezer so we put it in a Styrofoam cooler with a bag of ice. We had examined it and could see no apparent trauma or damage. Meanwhile, the adult loons kept returning to the area.

Next morning, I spoke with several people at the Biodiversity Institute. They suggested groups that could bring the loon to their facility in Falmouth ME. I eventually got a call from Rob Jones, volunteer driver for the Avian Rescue Organization. He came by after rescuing a baby robin and feeding it liquefied cat food with an eyedropper. That Avian group goes all out.

Rob said most dead loons without signs of trauma usually have died of lead poisoning from things like fishing tackle. I told him we'd love to know what the findings were, but he said that would be unlikely. They send birds — about 2400 a year — to a few veterinarians. Later in the day however, Rob called to give us a preliminary report. Surprise. No lead poisoning. No trauma. The poor thing swallowed a very large fish which got caught in its craw.

"Bit off more that he could chew," Rob said. Sad. But we were happy that it wasn't a man-made problem that caused its demise.

Maybe this summer our nesters will nurture their chicks to independence. We look forward to the loon count in July. According to Susan Gallo, director of Maine Audubon's Maine Loon Project. the count helps build public awareness about loons, which are one of the best indicators of the health of Maine's fresh water bodies.