A Young Male Seeks to Improve His Lot; An Abusive Stepfather

We are riveted on the happenings on Flannery/Velvet Lakes. On these two lakes –united through a narrow channel so as to be a single waterbody — a tense scene is playing out with elements of a Shakespearean tragedy. A 13 year-old male, hatched on Townline Lake and a frequent intruder into various lakes in and just west of  Rhinelander, is opportunistically seeking to replace the deceased Flannery male. If he succeeds, he would shift from a territory on the Wisconsin River, where he has failed to fledge chicks despite three years’ of nesting attempts, and settle on a new lake that just this year produced chicks, breaking its own eight-year skein of nesting futility. In other words, this would be a step up for the male.

This male’s effort to relocate to a more productive breeding site has taken a dark turn. While visiting Flannery and bonding with the widowed female there, the male encountered her young chicks. One of those chicks the male killed weeks ago by pecking it to death when it was quite small. The surviving chick too has suffered repeated beatings by the male to the point where the chick now spends much of the day hiding underneath piers on Velvet Lake to avoid the abuse. This grisly spectacle has had severe consequences, as the chick is only about 60% of expected body mass for its age. Clearly the physical beatings the chick has suffered, the presence of only one parent, and the inability of the female to feed her surviving offspring to satiation while defending him from intruders threaten his survival. It remains highly uncertain whether the chick will reach adulthood.

I had expected that the dreadful treatment of the Flannery/Velvet chick by an intruding male would make me feel a gut-level hatred of the intruder. Indeed, I was horrified by the fiasco unfolding there. But knowing that the male wreaking this havoc is an old friend of ours — one that I watched as a chick on Townline Lake back in 2002, a young floater on Langley, Julia and Hanson lakes, and finally a failed breeder on Wisconsin River — has complicated my perspective. I am rooting strongly for the chick to survive the vicious onslaught, start to forage for itself, and fledge. But I am also cheering a young male loon who is trying to turn his life around by moving into a new territory that offers the promise of abundant fatherhood.