LMG_4598 Feeding chick on nest

It was actually yesterday when Linda reported that her much-loved and -studied loon pair had hatched two chicks. May chicks are a very good sign! Even a better sign: 75 of 119 territories we observe are on nests, and only 8-10 pairs abandoned their first breeding attempts owing to black fly infestation. In short, we are off to a good start and hope for a bumper crop of chicks in 2015.

Linda’s stunning photo illustrates the exceptional efforts that loon parents make to care for their chicks. In the photo, the female offers a tiny minnow to one hatchling, while the male looks on, and the second hatchling scampers about the nest. In the coming weeks, the pair will offer steadily larger fish to their young. Both pair members — but especially the male — will guard the chicks closely. The male will yodel at any intruders that fly over or land in the territory. He will be particularly vocal this year, because he has two chicks, not just one. The female too will attend the chicks closely when they are young, but she will start to wander off a bit after they reach four weeks of age, leaving her family to forage apart within the territory and even visiting neighboring lakes.

Why do females seem to sherk their parental responsibilities, forcing their mates to take up the slack? We do not know. We suspect, however, that females desert their families and fly off to nearby lakes to draw attention away from their own lake and chicks. You see, intruders are attracted to adults in the water; the more adult loons they see on the water, the more likely intruders are to land. So females with chicks further two goals by “decoying” intruders away from their own lakes. First, they protect their chicks from intruders, which sometimes attack and even kill them. Second decamping females protect their own breeding position on the lake by reducing the likelihood that intruders will find their chicks and target the lake for takeover attempts the following year.