Life is risky for loon chicks, especially on small lakes. Our work and that of others has shown that chicks on small, acidic lakes grow more slowly and that the beta (smaller) chick is often much smaller than the alpha chick. In such cases, the alpha chick commonly pecks its sibling, which gets less food from the parents, often falls behind the family group and frequently dies. Faced with certain death if they remain near their family, many beta chicks engage in a desperate act — they leave the family, strike out across land, and try to find another lake with a breeding pair that will accept and feed them. This is not entirely foolhardy, as breeding pairs with chicks will often accept additional chicks that join their families.
Most beta chicks that choose to search for another lake are doomed, of course. It is a longshot that a chick will: 1) be able to find a nearby lake and travel to it without meeting a terrestrial predator, 2) happen to find a breeding loon pair there, and 3) gain acceptance from the pair, in the event that they have a chick or chicks of their own. Still, if you face certain death, a “Hail Mary” such as venturing to a nearby lake might make sense.
In any event, beta chicks can sometimes be found along roads or alone in lakes without other loons, and they frequently perish there. But recently an orphaned beta chick found its way to a roadside and was picked up and carried safely to Wild Instincts where it was nursed back to health. We then estimated the size and age of the chick, matched it with the chick of one of our breeding pairs, and released it with that family. Now, two weeks later, the foster chick seems to have been fully accepted by the family and is being fed by its foster parents and accepted by its step-sib. So this seems a rare story of a desperate beta chick getting a chance with a new family that might help it reach adulthood.