The Wild Side: Find help for hooked loons
Recently I have had a couple of phone calls about dead loons. Normally, I don’t go out to pick up dead birds. There are occasions where picking up dead birds is warranted, however. Any time we have five or more birds of a species die, we will want to collect a sample to test for the cause of death. We also collect some dead birds (namely crows, ravens, and blue jays) mid- to late summer to test for West Nile Virus.
So we sample for specific purposes and specific bird species. Loons, eagles and ospreys are examples of notable exception. When possible, we collect every salvageable carcass of bird species such as these. So, when a lakeshore owner called about a dead loon, I went and picked up the bird. We are collecting up to 100 dead Wisconsin loons this year to examine for cause of death. So far, we are close to 70 birds, and about 20 percent have died of lead poisoning from fishing lures. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned the cause of death for the loon I picked up as well.
We have a lot going on with loons. Their numbers are decreasing, even though they are protected and there is no hunting season. If you have spent time on a lake with loons, you may have noticed some have colored leg bands. These birds are captured, banded, and released unharmed so we can learn about their lives. Sometimes people mistake these colored bands for fishing lures, and call us to report that the birds are tangled up or hooked with lures. When it turns out to be leg bands, we are greatly relieved. That is not always the case, however.
This time of year, young loons are learning to hunt on their own, and they are often fooled by lifelike fish imitator fishing lures. Every year I hear from at least one troubled fisherman who hooks a loon, and decides to cut the line, watch it swim away, and then call me or a wildlife rehabilitator. My advice is this: if you hook a loon, and can safely get it to your boat, you should land it.
If you can use your tools at hand to remove the lure, you can do so, then place the bird back in the water. I recently heard a presentation by Mark Naniot with Wild Instincts wildlife rehabilitators. He said if you get the bird to the boat, and cannot remove the lure, bring it back to shore and call a rehabilitator, or bring it in to them. It didn’t sound like it would work to me, but he said the birds are so well designed for swimming and diving that they are very bad walkers. If you get the bird in your boat and set it down, it will just sit there.
I haven’t tried it; when I capture a duck, believe me when I tell you they make every effort to escape. Capturing a loon on the water, even if it can’t dive, is extremely difficult. The best chance that bird has for survival is to get it to someone who can remove the lure and tend its injuries quickly. If you see a loon injured but alive, call a licensed qualified rehabilitator like Wild Instincts in Rhinelander.
There is an interesting loon study going on now, where loons are fitted with little transmitters so we can track where they go during their migration, where they spend the winter, and when they return here to the Northwoods. You can go to the website and see where individual birds are now, where they have been, and what they did in past years. They even have a podcast now that shows what they have learned so far from this fascinating study. The website is www.umesc.usgs.gov/terrestrial/migratory_birds/loons/main.html.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.