Why would a breeding pair of loons — which has made an enormous investment in defending a territory, finding a nest site, incubating their eggs for almost a month, and then rearing their chicks — leave them alone? Such behavior seems reckless, almost dysfunctional. Yet loon pairs commonly “desert” their offspring for periods of hours, while they themselves visit neighboring lakes. During such times, of course, chicks are left to cope with all manner of predators and other dangers without parental assistance.
The leaving of chicks behind by parents does not occur willy-nilly. That is, not ALL chicks are deserted, only those that have reached at least four weeks of age. Some chicks, like those I watched on O’Day Lake this morning, are highly alert to their surroundings, like adults, and capable enough hunters that they are already providing over half of their own food. (Note the expert-looking dive by the chick in the video.) One can imagine that temporarily leaving behind chicks of this age does not carry huge risks. At six weeks of age, chicks can detect and flee from eagles, when necessary. So perhaps the risk of leaving your chicks to fraternize with neighboring adults is not great.
Still, temporary chick-desertion surely carries some risk. If the choices are remaining on your territory with your chicks versus departing to a nearby lake to visit with other adults, the first option is clearly the safer one. The only conclusion to draw from what appears to be rather reckless socializing by pairs with chicks is that they must gain something nontrivial from doing so to compensate for the small risk that their chicks will be lost during their absence.
Their are several possible explanations for parents’ trips to neighboring lakes. One hypothesis maintains that parents encounter and become familiar with neighbors whom they might have to battle later for a territory or with whom they might pair in the future. If so, recognizing and learning about other adults might provide for more effective fighting or breeding. A second idea is that parents leave their chicks in order to forage on lakes other than their own so as to maintain robust food levels for the chicks. Thirdly, temporary desertion of the chicks might constitute part of the weaning process; chicks often beg incessantly when with their parents, and perhaps chicks must be without parents to begin foraging effectively on their own in preparation for adulthood. A fourth explanation is that parents, which are conspicuous to other adults owing to their bright plumage, desert their breeding lakes in order to avoid giving away the fact that they have chicks. (Behaving this way might reduce the likelihood that a young nonbreeder could target the territory for eviction, since we know that intruders use chicks as an indication of a good territory. ) If this explanation is correct, then parents are essentially trying to “decoy” intruders away from their own lake by visiting a neighboring territory nearby. The hypothesis is plausible, because: 1) intruders are strongly drawn to other adults in the water, and 2) intruders appear to find chicks only after seeing and approaching the chicks’ parents.
One final curious behavior seen in loons and chicks provides partial corroboration for the “decoy hypothesis”. When faced with an intruding loon flying over their lake, adults and their chicks dive and scatter. That is to say, adults and their chicks make every effort to hide from intruders by diving and spreading out in the lake, which complicates discovery. If loon parents are desperate to hide their chicks from intruders, what better way to do so than by flying off to other lakes near their own — and thus using their conspicuousness to draw intruders to those lakes — and leaving their cryptic chicks at home, where they will most likely escape notice from the air.
The decoy hypothesis is complex. Its crux is that loon parents are protecting their own future breeding prospects by taking a slight risk with their current chicks. In time, we will be able to determine if parents that practice short-term chick desertion enjoy longer territorial tenure. If so, this will be a stunning example of effective long-term planning in the animal kingdom!