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.


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 the two loons from Minnesota that were tagged this year and 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.

What can Minnesotans do to help the loons?

  • Many Minnesota citizens currently feel helpless about what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico.  They want to know what to do.
  • Concerned citizens can help the Nongame Wildlife Program and its loon conservation efforts by donating to the Nongame Wildlife Checkoff on Minnesota state income and property tax forms.  Citizens can also make estate donations to the DNR's Nongame Wildlife Program or direct donations on the DNR website.
  • Contact the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program to sign up as a volunteer for the Minnesota Loon Monitoring Program so that we can have complete coverage on the 600 lakes that need to be checked each year, or sign up for the Minnesota Loon Watch Program to report the status of the loons on your own lake.
  • Contact the DNR's Nongame Wildlife Program right away if you find an injured, sick, or dead loon so it can be picked up by the DNR.  Injured loons may be rehabilitated, and dead loons will be analyzed for the cause of death. 
  • Report any harassment, nest disturbance, or shooting of loons to your local DNR Conservation Officer.
  • Contact Minnesota's senators and congressional delegation members in Washington to share your concerns and opinions about protecting and restoring migratory bird populations that are likely to be affected by the oil spill. 
  • Use non-toxic fishing tackle and ask your local bait and tackle store to stock environmentally friendly unleaded sinkers, weights and jigs.

What research is being done to monitor the loons?

  • Researchers surgically inserted tiny satellite transmitters into the abdomens of 10 loons from Minnesota and northern Wisconsin this summer so they can follow the birds' migration routes and feeding patterns - and learn whether the loons survive in the oil-fouled Gulf of Mexico. 
  • In addition to satellite transmitter loons, up to 80 loons in the Midwest will be equipped with geolocator tags. 
  • Researchers also hope to learn more about the risks of botulism, which has killed more than 80,000 birds on the Great Lakes since 1999, including large numbers of loons.
  • Review movements of loons with Satellite transmitters this year and from previous studies.


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