Please Don’t Feed the Loons!

The prospect that someone would feed a loon seems outrageous on three counts. First, how could a person get close enough to a loon to offer it food? Second, how many of us have small live fish in our pockets to offer? Third, we are talking about a loon, for Pete’s sake! Who would treat such a magnificent bird like a pond duck?

On second thought, I get it. People love loons. They wish to see them up close and to help them in any way they can. On its face, feeding a loon seems like a positive act. By offering fish to a loon, folks must think that they are doing their part to conserve this iconic species. At least, that is my most charitable take on the feeding of loons.

As it turns out, many loons readily accept food from humans. In fact, some loons abruptly change from being fiercely independent animals that are contemptuous of humans to shockingly needy creatures that have dropped all pretense of wildness and live only for their next handout. Linda’s photo shows a typical scenario. Here, the female waits expectantly near a human on shore. Though this human clearly has no intention of offering food, the female is so thoroughly trained to take food from humans that she does not distinguish between humans with food and those without.

Linda’s photo also highlights the particular danger that feedings can pose if they involve loon parents. If a chick’s parent is taking food from humans, the chick itself will observe this behavior and is likely to imitate it. At a time in its life when a young loon must become an efficient forager, build its flight muscles, and survive its southward migration in November, a dependency on humans is most unhelpful.

It is easy to tell if a loon is being fed by people. The video below shows such a loon. As soon as I came within view, this bird made a beeline for my canoe, and it stayed with me for several minutes. Each time I happened to move my arms rapidly, it became alert, expecting that I was about to toss a fish for it to catch.

What’s the harm, you might ask? People who feed fish to loons are providing more food to them and are possibly helping them to survive. As a scientist, I must admit that measuring any impact of human feeding of loons is difficult, and we must accept that human-provided food could help loons in the short term. But consider this: a fed loon is a loon that routinely approaches humans closely. While most of us love loons and would not dream of hurting them, not all humans feel this way. A small number of people might harm a loon that approaches closely enough to accept a fish from them. More important, loons that stay close to humans and expect them to throw food are more likely than other loons to chase fishing lures or live bait and get hooked.

So…..please, folks, if you see someone offering food to a loon, have the strength to approach them and explain why we must avoid this harmful practice. If necessary, get your lake association involved or report them to the local wildlife agency. If all else fails, I am happy to do what I can to contact the offending party and ask them to stop. I find that most people who feed loons are only trying to help them and have simply not stopped to consider the long-term harm they are causing.