Do Loons Talk to Eagles?

On its face, it seems absurd. Why would loons ever communicate with eagles? Apart from raccoons, bald eagles pose a greater threat to loons than any other species. Eagles are opportunistic feeders, always looking for an easy meal. And they are large and well-armed enough to seize almost anything edible they find. Nesting loons provide a tempting stationary target for eagle attack. We have had two eagle kills of nesting loons during our study. The eggs themselves are vulnerable to eagles, because they do not flee and provide a nourishing snack. Loon chicks, whose diving skills are more limited than adults’, also draw unwanted attention from eagles. According to our own observations and those of others on our study lakes, eagles are a major cause of mortality among loon chicks older than two weeks. No doubt this explains why chicks learn to track the movements of nearby eagles obsessively, like the three Bass Lake chicks in Linda Grenzer’s photo.

Why would loons, which seem to spend most of their waking hours scanning the skies for eagles, ever speak to them? Could it ever be profitable to speak to your arch enemy? According to a number of studies by behavioral ecologists, it could, providing the information you pass along to your enemy increases your likelihood of surviving.

Deer and antelope engage in a behavior termed stotting in the presence of predators. Stotting means jumping upwards (often while flashing the tail upwards) in a way that makes the animal more conspicuous to its predator. But data collection and analysis on the occurrence and timing of stotting by gazelles has shown that they chiefly practice this behavior when they spot the predator at a distance and can easily outrun it. This and subsequent research suggests that prey often signal to predators to inform them of the unprofitability of an attack. That is, a prey species is saying to its predator, “I see you and am faster than you; save us both a lot of time and energy by looking elsewhere for food.” In fact, honest signals between prey and predators are not uncommon in nature. Many animals have evolved bright warning coloration to signal to potential predators that they are poisonous or dangerous to the predator in some other way that makes attacking them a bad idea. Colorful prey are, in effect, doing predators a favor by informing them that they should not attack! (Again, though, the prey are acting in their own best interests, not the predator’s.)

Could the mournful sounding wail that we often hear from loons be a signal to eagles that they have been spotted and that an attack would be fruitless?  If so, wails should: 1) occur often when eagles are passing overhead, but only when they are at a safe distance, and 2) be emitted by loons regardless of the presence or absence of other loons (like mates and chicks). The second prediction is crucial; if loons give wails to eagles only in the presence of their mates and chicks, it would seem as though they are simply warning their family about the eagle and not talking to the eagle itself. Our data clearly show that the wail is a long-distance signal given by loons when eagles are overhead. And loons wail to eagles whether they are alone or with mates and offspring. So loons certainly look as though they are speaking to eagles with their wails.

Strange to think that telling your arch-enemy anything could ever be a good idea!