2020 Hindsight

So much has transpired during these past twelve months that I had to look through my year’s posts to remember it all. As usual, I had forgotten a good deal. Perhaps it is worthwhile reviewing some of what happened during this most unforgettable year and letting you know about our plans for 2021.

2020 was, for the Loon Project, a year of contrasts. The finding that the loon population of northern Wisconsin is in decline cast a pall over everything we did. Faced with this dire news, we were forced to shift from asking arcane questions about territorial behavior to trying to discover the cause of the decline. That a coronavirus pandemic hit the human population during the same year as this discovery seemed almost fitting. Yet, in the midst of our alarm over the loon population — in the Loon Project’s darkest hour, really — we made a huge breakthrough in understanding loon social behavior. In all modesty, the likelihood that pairs with chicks spotlight the chicks of their neighbors to draw attention away from their own chicks and thus extend their own territory ownership is a startling and unique finding not just for loons, but for territorial animals generally. Even with all of the difficulties all of our families are facing — loon and human alike — I find myself smiling inexplicably two to three times each day because of this cool result. Linda’s amazing photo at the top of the page reminds me of this finding because it shows how loon parents, while (no doubt) happy to have chicks to care for, live in a state of constant vigilance for other adults that wish to take their territory.

Looking back, 2020 was also a year of awful and wonderful news regarding loon-human interactions. I have never known a year when more loons were lost to lead poisoning. Linda thinks that the spike in fishing brought on by lockdown meant more lines in the water and more lead in loon stomachs. If so, the pandemic called attention to a grave danger to loons that is easy to solve, if we only care to do so. In any event, lead weighed more heavily on loons in 2020 than ever before. 2020 also saw several instances of humans feeding loons and causing them to become dangerously tame. Despite these alarming recent patterns, I cannot recall a year in which humans worked harder to get help for impacted loons, nurse loons back to health, or save doomed individuals. Maybe, considering the circumstances, each of us was a little stronger and more eager to help others in 2020.

With that cheery thought in mind, let me tell you about our current research situation and ask you for help. (Thanks to Rosemary Toussaint for nudging me to do this.) This spring, Brian and I will be putting together a proposal to the National Science Foundation for funds to cover three years or more of field research. This proposal, based on our recent discovery of “spotlighting” of neighboring chicks, will be a strong one, and I am optimistic (perhaps naively) about gaining funding for what would be ground-breaking behavioral work. That research effort, if funded, will allow us to continue to put together a large field crew and collect data on breeding success and survival in our declining adult loon population. In other words, having a robust field crew to attack behavioral questions will allow us also to monitor the northern Wisconsin loon population and search also for the cause(s) of the breeding decline. If we are lucky enough to get NSF funding, though, it would not kick in until next winter, because it takes several months for the wheels to turn at NSF.

Now the ask. I have been able to recover part of my meager 2020 research funds, which I can therefore apply to 2021. At present, I can foresee hiring two students in 2021 as field assistants and giving them stipends sufficient to clothe and feed them throughout the summer. If you enjoy my blog and can afford to do so, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Loon Project, which will help me hire two additional students for the 2021 field team, cover our entire set of study lakes, and — we hope — learn what is ailing the loons of northern Wisconsin. Donations are easy through the website. We are really committed to learning about and helping loons, and financial assistance from you will help us keep the project healthy until we can secure long-term funding.

At present, we are hunkered down in southern California, waiting for the vaccine and the go-ahead to get back out in the world. I have written up the spotlighting result and must publish that paper so that we can use it as a foundation for the NSF grant proposal. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

Stay well, friends. We will soon emerge from the tunnel.