The Lure of the Common Loon
Joe Ricketts pledges $6.5 million to save an icon of the northern lakes.
“It’s a subtle effect,” said BRI’s Evers, who has studied loons and mercury levels for more than 20 years. “It affects the bird’s productivity over time.” In one recent study, Evers and Nina Schoch, of the Wildlife Conservation Foundation, found that loons with elevated levels of mercury produced one-third to one-half as many chicks as healthy loons. Mercury also leaves adult loons lethargic, which renders both adults and their chicks more vulnerable to predators.
One not-so-subtle effect hits loons that nest around the Great Lakes. Joe Kaplan, a former BRI scientist who now directs Common Coast, a research and conservation organization in northern Michigan, currently studies the spread of botulism among loon populations along Lake Michigan. The deadly biotoxin had been largely eradicated from the Great Lakes in the early 1980s. It returned to Lake Huron in 1999, and then spread to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. By 2006 it had reached Lake Michigan, carried by invasive zebra mussels and quagga mussels. Since 1999, botulism outbreaks have claimed more than 100,000 waterbirds in the region. Hardest hit are common loons, white-winged scoters, horned grebes, and long-tailed ducks. “Last year we had at least 3,000 dead loons,” Kaplan said. “And 99 percent were adults, which means it’s reducing the population size.”
Kaplan, Evers, and others who work with loons were buoyant about this week’s announcement of the Ricketts grant. “It’s a shot in the arm for the species,” said Kaplan, who partners with Michigan Audubon on a Loon Network to promote conservation of the species in the region. BRI director Dave Evers said the money will provide researchers with “the means to tackle some of these stressors, like mercury, acid rain, and botulism, that are out there causing problems.”
For Joe Ricketts, funding the loon research is a way to make the invisible become seen. “If we’re polluting our lakes to the point where we’re killing the loons,” he said, “it’s a wake-up call to us as human beings, that we’re causing more damage to our environment than we think we are—and we can’t see it except through a bird like the loon.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Joe Ricketts is not the owner of the Chicago Cubs; the Ricketts' family trust owns the franchise.