Two articles about the danger of lead poisoning of loons happened to cross my desk within a week. They caught my interest because observing a pair of black and white spotted loons calling to each other on a quiet Montana lake makes for a lucky day in my book.
And to think we nearly lost the likes of the loon in the mid-20th century due to pollution and development. Thankfully, their populations have made a strong comeback, as was reported by Lauren Chambliss in the summer 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Their recovery and range has increased substantially in North America, Chambliss said, following passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
The loon’s recovery has been hampered by lead poisoning, however, and populations remains below historic levels according to both Chambliss’ article and in the Montana Loon Society’s 2018 newsletter.
Lead poisoning is a leading cause of death for loons (a species that in healthy environments can live up to 20 to 30 years). Both publications identify fishing tackle as the source of poisoning. The loons can ingest lead sinkers and jigs from the bottom of a lake while picking up gravel to aid digestion in their gizzards. Once even a small amount of lead makes its way into their bloodstream, the loon becomes weak, develops tremors, and can no longer eat or fly. It soon becomes emaciated and paralyzed and dies within two to four weeks.
In her article, Chandress points out that “decades after the U.S. government began regulating lead out of our environment through lead bans in gasoline, household paint and the shotgun ammunition used for hunting waterfowl, the poisonous soft metal is still being directly introduced into lakes and waters via fishing tackle.”
Non-lead tackle is now available. Ask your favorite fish and tackle store if they carry it and if they don’t, ask them to. Go through your tackle box and get rid of any lead tackle at a household hazardous waste collection site.
And while out exploring Northwest Montana’s lakes, remember to steer clear of the bright yellow buoys that indicate a loon nest is nearby. Montana Loon Society president Lynn Kelly said that loons who become stressed by boaters might be forced off their nests and predators can swoop in and devour the eggs. Even without predation, a chick within an incubated egg can die of hypothermia after just one hour of exposure. Loons typically lay two eggs each year. If stressed loons can hatch the first egg, but abandon the second laid 12 to 24 hours later.
Once heard, the plaintive call of the loon is as haunting as it is beautiful and won’t be forgotten. It’s truly the call of the wild.
If you do spot common loons, check to see if they are wearing a color leg band, which can be spotted if you catch them raising a leg out of the water while preening. The Montana Loon Society encourages spotters to contact their organization with details, even if you can’t read the band colors.
To learn more or read the Loon Society’s newsletter online go to www.montanaloons.org.