Loons and the gulf oil spill

Two adult loons in Minnesota are equipped with satellite transmitters and geolocators in an effort to study the movements and foraging patterns of fish-eating birds while they migrate through the Great Lakes.

View a video of loons being tagged
View a slide show of loons being tagged
View KARE 11 Simply Science story
Do Minnesota Loons migrate to the Gulf of Mexico?
How might the oil spill impact the loons?
What can Minnesotans do to help the loons?
What research is being done to monitor the loons?
Do Minnesota Loons migrate to the Gulf of Mexico?
Minnesota has more loons (roughly 12,000) than any other state except Alaska.
Some Minnesota loons winter off the Atlantic coast from North Carolina southward to Florida, but more winter along the Gulf coast from Alabama and the Florida panhandle southward along the western coast of Florida to the Florida Keys. See movements of three previously tagged loons.
They use near-shore areas that are generally less than 150 feet deep.
Areas from Orange Beach Alabama through the Pensacola, Florida area are having severe problems with oil washing ashore. Those are the areas where loons will begin arriving in October and November. Younger loons follow a month or so later.
At this point, we don’t know the extent of the threat or what percentage of our loon population could be lost to the oil spill.
All we do know is that it is a significant threat that will not be gone by November.
Unfortunately, there is no strategy that will prevent the loons from migrating or from choosing another wintering area. Their migratory routes are “hard-wired in their genes” and most will be heading for the Gulf.
How might the oil spill impact the loons?
While this disaster at first seemed far away, the hazard to Common Loons now still strikes close to home and close to the heart.
Loons have no defenses against oil. They do not recognize a sheen of oil on the water as a hazard.
For some loons, it will be a one-way trip to the oily offshore waters and soiled shorelines where they could perish when they become mired in oil or face a lack of natural foods that have been eliminated by the oil.
The oil in the Gulf is contaminating near-shore grasses and marsh areas where loons spend the winter.
Loons need a clean, healthy and diverse marine environment. It may take years to restore such an environment in the Gulf. No one know at this point how long that may take – especially while the oil continues to flow. When the environment is cleaned up, then the wildlife victims of the oil spill can begin to recover.
Some Minnesota lakes could become hauntingly silent in the next few years if loons do not return from their wintering grounds.
Loons like fish – panfish, perch, ciscoes, suckers, trout, bullheads, smelt, and minnows. They also may eat frogs, leeches, crayfish, mollusks, salamanders, amphipods, and insects.
Unlike most birds which have hollow bones, loon bones are dense, helping them to dive to depths of some 250 feet in their search for food. They can stay under water for up to five minutes.
Scientists think loons can live for 30 years or more.
While the immediate outlook for our wintering birds in the Gulf is bleak, we can learn from the wisdom of ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson when he saw the Ospreys near his home in Old Lyme, Connecticut, declining from the effects of DDT. He said that wildlife species are far more resilient than we usually give them credit for. They can recover from disastrous population declines if people take action to provide and restore a clean, healthy environment, including safe places to nest and to winter, and provide protection from illegal killing.


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One Response to Loons and the gulf oil spill

  1. therese davis says:

    How about…”…and provide protection from killing PERIOD.” I find it inhumane that species decline is largely ignored by hunters. When the midwest showed a devastating crash in the crow population due to west nile virus? they were STILL ALLOWED to be hunted in Illinois! There is a noticeable absence of moose and bear in Minnesota… but they are still hunted there too. If you need to feed your family, I totally understand. But I do NOT think KILLING should be called a ‘sport.’