Christine Herwig: Here’s how to help Minnesota’s loons
The common loon is one of the most recognizable birds in Minnesota.
We appreciate hearing them on summer mornings and enjoy watching them raise their young. Across the United States, researchers have found that they produce on average 0.5 chicks per year or 1 chick every other year. Although this seems like a low success rate, they live a long time, up to 30 years, and a pair can produce 12 chicks in a lifetime.
These birds are slow to mature too. Young loons travel to the Gulf of Mexico where they spend 3-4 years there or along the Atlantic coast. After a number of years as an immature bird, they return to within about 60 miles of where they were born to nest.
We are often asked if platforms are needed to help loons. We recommend only putting them out if your lake has one of the following conditions: the lake experiences frequent bounce (raised and lowered water levels) that flood nests every year, the shoreline is highly altered (e.g., rip-rapped or mowed to the edge so there is little natural habitat), or predation has been high. More platforms does not necessarily mean more loons. Because loons are territorial, they will fight to the death. Adults will even kill chicks of another pair if they are too close. Each pair needs about 60 acres.
We estimate that Minnesota has about 6,000 pairs of loons. Although the loon population has been stable in Minnesota, there are still many threats to loons in Minnesota.
Loons prefer clear, healthy waters so they can see their preferred food, which is fish. Because they are top predators, highly visible to people and tend to use the same lake year after year, they are widely used as an indicator species for aquatic health.
You can help loons by ensuring your lake is healthy. That means doing your part to help sustain high water quality by encouraging aquatic plant communities like bulrush that provide hiding areas as well as spawning and nursery areas for fish, and preserving or restoring shoreline plants to reduce runoff and filter incoming water. Use phosphorus-free fertilizer if you live on a lake, because excess phosphorus can lead to increased algae. Check out “Score your Shore” on the DNR website.
In Minnesota, in addition to habitat loss or degradation, boating disturbance is a concern. Loons like to put their nest very close to the water level because their feet are so far back on their body, which allows them to be excellent swimmers but terrible at walking on land. Wave action from boating can disturb nests. You can help by limiting wave action near known nests (or when near the shoreline) and by not disturbing loons so they do not abandon their nest.
Loons are also susceptible to collisions with boats. Additionally, young loons cannot dive deeply nor can they swim fast and they tire easily, so they can be vulnerable to fast moving watercraft. You can help loons by giving these birds the space they need to feed. We recommend staying 200 feet away from loon families. Report harassment, nest disturbance, or shooting of loons to your local conservation officer.
Additionally, pollutants such as lead and mercury affect loons. Just one ingested lead sinker can poison a loon. Lead poisoning is a chronic condition affecting the nervous system. Lead affects their ability to fly, forage and breed. Acute toxicity can lead to death.
You can help by using and encouraging others to use nontoxic sinkers. Also, recover as many lost lures and as much loose fishing line as you can to protect all wildlife from injury and entanglement.
Another way you can help loons is to volunteer on loon surveys conducted in Minnesota. The Minnesota DNR’s website has good information about volunteer opportunities: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteering/index.html .
If you have any more questions about loons, please contact a nongame specialist in the northwest region of Minnesota (218-308-2641 or 218-308-2653). We are very fortunate to have a stable loon population in Minnesota. Let’s try and keep it that way.
Christine Herwig is the Assistant Regional Manager for the Minnesota DNR’s Northwest Region in the Ecological and Water Resources Division. Before taking that position, Herwig was the DNR’s nongame specialist for Northwest Minnesota.