Research on Territorial Behavior
The Loon Project is a scientific study that focuses on territorial behavior, reproduction, and habitat selection of common loons (Gavia immer) in northern Wisconsin. Since 1993, we have captured and individually-marked adults and chicks on about 200 lakes. We have accumulated a large sample of longitudinal data that permits robust statistical analysis and provides a rare, life-history perspective. To date, we have followed the entire breeding lives of 65 loons and observed as adults 427 birds that we banded as chicks in the study area. This large sample of individuals followed since hatching allows us to investigate the behavior of young birds — especially how young birds learn about and settle on breeding territories. The project is ongoing and has a number of research goals that we are now striving to achieve.
A vast popular literature focuses on the common loon, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, much of what this literature says about loons is accurate and has served to satisfy the curiosity of a public eager for information. On the other hand, many books, websites, popular articles, and self-described “loon experts” make pronouncements about loon biology that are simply not true. In most cases, false pronouncements constitute harmless misinformation — the kind of thoughtless blather that Americans are getting more and more used to hearing and ignoring. But trying to sell as facts statements that are not backed up by real data is reckless, at best. At worst, such misbehavior can hinder the goal we all share of preserving loon populations.
On the Loon Project website, we do not pontificate about all aspects of loon biology, inventing facts to fill in gaps in our knowledge. The findings we describe here are supported by robust statistical analysis, burnished by peer review, and presented in scientific journal articles. To be sure, we sometimes speculate about why loons behave as they do; that is how science moves forward. But when we do, we make it clear that such statements represent hypotheses only. Since we are scientists, not entertainers, we are not afraid to use the very powerful words: “we do not know”.
Despite our cautious approach, the Loon Project has produced a wealth of findings. We learned over a decade ago, for example, that loons breed in socially and genetically monogamous pairs and that, contrary to popular opinion, loons do not mate for life. Yet both members of a breeding pair do tend to return year after year to the same small lake or portion of a large lake and are likely to enjoy long lives. So lake residents are often correct when they hear a loon call in early May and remark, “The loons are back!”. (In other cases, they are at least half right!)
Some of our results have been perplexing, such as the finding that male loons select the nest site. Other findings have been shocking, such as lethal battles for territory ownership, which occur chiefly among males. Certain patterns we have seen in loons, like senescence, are reminiscent of the human condition.
A good deal of our time and energy has focused on learning about the reasons for territorial intrusion in loons. We have learned that intruders seek information about breeding success. Recently, we have come to find out that intruding adults also try to learn about territorial residents, perhaps so that they can plan eviction attempts in the future. One odd fact about territorial intrusions, however, is that a large percentage of them are by neighboring territory owners, rather than adults that lack a territory and are looking for one.
In the past several years, breeding habitat selection by loons has come to be an important topic of investigation for us. We have learned that loons seek to settle to breed on lakes of certain size and pH based on their experience on natal territories, even though preferences for natal-like lakes sometimes leads them to settle on poor territories. The tendency for individual loons to form specific habitat preferences also has important implications for efforts to reestablish extirpated populations in regions south of the current breeding range.
We invite you to examine these findings and many others related to loon territorial behavior, habitat settlement, and reproduction. We have provided links to scientific papers there, but you can also look at our popular articles, which, while a bit easier to comprehend, still employ scientific rigor.
Study of The Loon Population
One benefit of our behavioral research is that it allows us to monitor the loon population in northern Wisconsin using a large sample of marked individuals. In the course of our study, we have measured both adult and juvenile survival and produced a robust estimate of population stability. The population was stable and even increased slightly until recently. However, the rate of chick production has fallen over the past decade, which causes us some concern.
Updates from the Loon Project: The LP Blog
The Loon Project is ongoing. This site enables us to describe recent findings, activities and accomplishments for folks who are interested. Check out “LP Blog” for the most up-to-date information. If you are really gung ho, sign up to “follow” the blog and receive an e-mail each time I add a new post. During the breeding season (May to August), I provide frequent updates of what we are seeing in the field — nests, chicks, territorial battles, research activities, and so forth. At all times of year, I will let you know about published papers and presentations by the Loon Project.
We make available here video that shows what our leg-banded loons look like (under “Why Band Loons?”). In addition, if you look under “Findings” > “How does a loon acquire a territory?”, you can watch a couple of vicious battles between loons for ownership of a territory.
Who We Are
The project is directed by Walter Piper of Chapman University in Orange, California. But I have had academic and field assistance from many collaborators over the years and support from many lake residents, who let us view loons on their lakes. The unsung heroes of the project are research assistants, who work countless hours collecting data on loons, usually as a means to get field experience in preparation for a career in animal behavior, ecology, or wildlife biology. Many research assistants take on side projects that allow them to devise a new means of data collection or an experiment, which can be written up for presentation or even publication after the season. In recent years, Linda Grenzer (whose photo appears above) has become an invaluable contributor by taking great photos, monitoring the breeding pairs in the southwestern section of the study area, and staying on the lookout for loons that are in danger and can be rescued. To find out more about the people on the study, look under People.
The National Science Foundation provided funding for our work from 2003 through 2018. In the crucial early years of the study, we received funding from the National Geographic Society, the Disney Conservation Fund, Chapman and Cornell Universities…and Mom and Dad.