Unexpected Hatchlings In Montana

It is one thing to lose your own young very early and then — at a weak moment — adopt young of another species that resemble your lost young. Adoption after hatching is an inherently risky move, and one likely to saddle you with the responsibility of rearing young very unlike yourself.

But how can things go sideways when you spend four long weeks on a nest and observe carefully as young emerge from the eggs you warmed with your own body? Surely any creature that fights its way out of an egg that you have incubated lovingly beneath you for so long must be worthy of your protection.

So it must have seemed to a breeding loon pair in northwestern Montana two days ago when three fluffy youngsters hatched and dutifully followed their parents onto the water. Yet the fluffy youngsters that popped out of the eggs the loon parents had spent countless hours incubating were not loon chicks, but Canada Goose goslings. So those cold nights, scorching afternoons, and relentless flying pests that the parents endured for four long weeks have produced a surprising outcome.

The loon parents do not seem disappointed. They have spent the past two days attending untiringly to their adorable, if unexpected, brood. And the goslings themselves betray no hint of alarm or discomfort — even when their parents vanish suddenly beneath the lake’s surface.

But Bob LeBlanc, the photographer who discovered this mismatched family, was left scratching his head. After hearing him recount the story of how a loon pair ended up with three goslings, I could shed no new light on the situation.

Certain facts seem clear. First, a goose pair nested on one of Bob’s three carefully constructed (for loons) nesting platforms but then inexplicably abandoned a clutch of eggs soon after incubation began. Finding an attractive nesting location, a later-arriving pair of loons apparently skipped the step where they deposit their own eggs there and instead simply decided to warm the eggs already on the platform.

I’ll be honest. As someone who has devoted his last three decades to learning about common loons and promoting their conservation, I have decidedly mixed feelings about loons raising goslings. The Canada Goose population in the Upper Midwest does not need loons to raise more of them. In fact, according to a recent study, there are about five times as many geese in North America now than in 1970. Goose numbers continue to rise in the Upper Midwest, where I do my research, leading me to worry that they are seizing good nest spots and keeping loons from using them. But for the moment, and in this one loon family, I have to admit that the fuzzy misfits are awfully cute.