Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. The Looney Bin

The Common Loon (Gavia immer): in a way very few other species have managed to do, this bird has come to represent for many Canadians the meaning of the north. The magical paddle through still waters at dusk; those lovely summer mornings watching the mist rise from the lake–these already cherished moments are made yet more special by the presence of this magnificent bird. Simply hearing its haunting call sends chills through even the most urbanised of hearts. And there are few occurrences that can warm the soul like catching sight of a family of Loons, with the little ones riding atop mom’s back. There’s no denying it: Loons are the symbol of the wild for many, and do they ever suit the role well.

G. immer really is the perfect species to think of at this point in the year, when even an imaginary cottage will do. If you’re having trouble conjuring up the appropriate images on this cold day in February, simply reach into your pocket and pull out our gold, shiny friend, the Loony. Close your eyes, toss it about a few times, release those everyday tensions, and let your imagination do the rest.

The Loon is master of its environment, eating and even sleeping in its watery home, diving to incredible depths in search of sustenance, and remaining submerged for up to three minutes at a time. With feet set uncannily far back on the body, Loons are particularly well adapted to swimming–and powerful swimmers they are. But these aquatic wonders are no strangers to the sky, either, and have been clocked at flight speeds of over 62 miles per hour. The parents (mates for life) teach the little ones well, and by only ten days of the age the young are able to swim and dive, paying early tribute to their heritage.

Such specific adaptations to the aquatic environment do get Loons into trouble, though. Getting out of the water is itself a challenge: Loons require long take-off ‘runways’ in order to propel themselves into the air. During flash winter freeze-ups on lakes or rivers, some Loons become trapped in the ice because there is simply too little open water to allow them to get their big bodies up into the air.

Even for those that do successfully make it out of their safe watery abodes, danger lurks in the form of dry land. Loons are literally unable to walk as a result of the positioning of their feet so far back on their bodies (think pivot points). So, in cases of accidental landings on solid ground, unable to transport themselves to even a nearby water body, Loons in this unfortunate position are left to the mercy of the fates. And winter brings with it some specific hazards in this respect: during flight, Loons can develop a covering of ice on their wings. If the build-up is severe enough, the ice layer can impede movement and cause weight and balance problems to the point that the bird will be sent plummeting to the ground. I tell you: it’s no easy life for the Mint’s lead animal.

In addition to all of these natural challenges facing the Common Loon, there are some not-so-natural threats out there, too. While the bird may be synonymous with thoughts of the pristine north, it is in fact one of the species suffering from some of the severest forms of poisoning. Toxic heavy metals–primarily lead and mercury, nasty things–are seriously jeopardising the health of these birds. These toxins can cause depression of the immune system, neurological disorders, and reproductive failure. Luckily, something as simple as the use by anglers of non-lead sinkers (weights used in fishing, which are ingested by Loons) can essentially eliminate lead poisoning problems. And measures to curb acid precipitation (which causes mercury to transform into the highly toxic methylmercury) will help to stem the tide of Loons suffering from mercury poisoning.

The Common Loon: this is one bird that, pretty much universally admired, seems worth fighting for. It’s beautiful, it does cool things, it makes nice sounds. We, even in our culture of quick and dirty consumption, seem to be able to recognise the Loon’s importance–both to our own psyche, and to the north that we love to love. While there isn’t much we can do for ice build-up on the wings, or for the awkward physicality of this bird, it’s probably a good idea–both for us and them– if we do what we can where we can to protect their health and environment. So as dreams of summer fishing turn into reality this spring, remember: lead sinkers bad, bismuth sinkers good. And when that legislation to curb acid rain comes up: calling MP good, leaving politics to politicians bad:

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