SPEAKER: The work I'm going to tell you about loons has depended on a great many different people. My colleague, Walter Piper, has been leading the project. Jay Mager, a former graduate student of mine, has been doing much of the work on sounds. But most important of all are a crew of students who come every summer to work on the loon project
WALTER PIPER: I've been studying loons since 1993, and so I guess that means this is our 16th year. Loons have always had a fascination. Or I've had a fascination for loons, I guess I should say, in as a child, I grew up spending summers on lakes in New Hampshire and at a family cottage in Ontario.
And loons were out on the lake. And my mom would ask us each morning, did you hear the loons last night? And so I've always had this sense that loons had a lot going on, had a lot that they were telling each other, and wanted to learn more about them.
JAY MAGER: I've been working with loons since 1991. So it's been about 16 years or so now.
VIRGINIA ABERNATHY: My professor, Dr. Jay Mager, works there at ONU, and he told me about the project and got me interested in it and recruited me.
ANDREW RENKY: I found out about the loon project through the American Ornithologists Union job board on their website. And I thought it was an interesting study to be a part of, and I went to the website to find out a little bit more about it. And then I sent in a resume and my cover letter, and I got signed on for the summer.
SAVANAH LANE: Through Dr. Walter Piper-- he's my professor and also my academic advisor.
DAN SALISBURY: I'm majoring as a biology major in ecology and evolutionary bio. And this summer, I'm spending my time up here in Wisconsin as a loon researcher.
SPEAKER: I'm going to take you on a trip with our loon crews, and we can actually see the behavior of loons out in the field. And in order to do that, I'm going to ask you to join me in this canoe.
DAN SALISBURY: A typical day, we wake up bright and early at 4:00 AM, and we try to get to our first lake around 5:00. I haven't seen the sunrise in who knows how long until the summer.
We do five lakes, and you like to spend an hour on each lake, where we'll try to find the birds and see if they're nesting.
SPEAKER: We often see other families. Here is a mother mallard with her chicks.
These loons are upset because we are close to their nest on this floating platform. A chick has just hatched.
As we leave, the parents return.
Each loon nest is located using a global positioning device. Often, the incubating loon will leave the nest and tremolo and display to distract us. As soon as we leave, the loon returns to the nest.
Notice the foot wagging. And here comes an intruder.
And finally, the intruder flees.
Watch the chick climb under its parent's wing-- an older and bigger chick.
The loon crew lives together. After an early start, some catch a brief nap while Dan helps Virginia enter her observations into the computer database.
DAN SALISBURY: Out of a whole question, if you see.
SPEAKER: A giant wall chart displays the current status of each lake and pair of loons. In the evening, the group gathers to discuss the day's observations.
WALTER PIPER: No, I've messed with those birds, and they're skittish.
SAVANAH LANE: Well, and they were with their chick, so it was--
WALTER PIPER: Oh, they have a chick?
SAVANAH LANE: Mm-hm. Yeah. They--
WALTER PIPER: On Green Bass?
SAVANAH LANE: Two.
WALTER PIPER: Do you remember the time we went to Green Pass--
JAY MAGER: Oh, yeah--
WALTER PIPER: And it's electric motor. Or at least, we did electric motor.
SAVANAH LANE: Oh, yeah.
WALTER PIPER: Remember, the electric motor was dying, and we were going about this fast.
JAY MAGER: And the bird was going about the same speed.
WALTER PIPER: Yeah. I know. I know. I thought, are we gaining?
JAY MAGER: All night long.
WALTER PIPER: You had to stare really carefully at the bird to see if we were actually gaining on it. But we caught him.
JAY MAGER: Yeah. You finally did the old--
WALTER PIPER: I think, yeah, did the lunge.
SAVANAH LANE: That was when you--
WALTER PIPER: Please grab me by the ankles as I go overboard.
ANDREW RENKY: You just kind of get a sense of things to look at in the birding. And you just get a sense of who's who, and you definitely know what they're doing. And you kind of almost have some sort of insight into almost what they're thinking.
VIRGINIA ABERNATHY: I never realized how complex loons really are. I just knew that they were a bird. I didn't know that much about them. But there are so many interesting little facets about their life and behavior that I find pretty interesting. It's fun to watch them all interact together.
SAVANAH LANE: The loons are of interest to a lot of people, especially in Wisconsin. I think that they hold a lot of symbolic meaning to this region, and a lot of people get really attached to the loons down here. So just going out there and watching them and knowing what's going on with them and then being able to come back and have a conversation with the people who own the houses or who are in the area, you can tell how much of an impact these birds have on them and just knowing what they're doing and how they're doing.
A lot of people want to make sure that they're safe and that their chicks are safe.
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Common loons are large, fish-eating birds that winter on the ocean but breed on freshwater lakes. Loons have been studied for years, but it is only in the last fifteen years that we have a large enough population of banded individuals to begin to understand the details of their behavior. Breeding territories can be founded on vacant lakes by replacing a missing pair member or by actively evicting a member of the pair. When an intruding female takes over a territory, the displaced female moves to an adjacent lake. In contrast, when the intruder is male, about 30 percent of the territorial battles are fatal. If a loon is killed, it is always the resident male, never the intruder. We don't know why there is this asymmetry in the behavior of the two sexes. But since it is the male loon that seems to select the nest site with improving reproductive success every year, this may be the reason.
Many of us know loons by their haunting vocalizations. There are three long distance calls: the wail, the tremolo, and the yodel. Each plays a role in the establishment and maintenance of the breeding territory.
Loons are at the top of the food chain and tend to accumulate toxins, like methyl mercury, in their tissues. One reason for studying loons is to see whether an increase in mercury has any effect on their reproduction or behavior. These CyberTower videos describe how this research is conducted.
This video is part 4 of 6 in the Understanding Loons series.