The phenomenon is absurd on its face. A loon chick wholly dependent upon its parents for food and protection abruptly abandons them, swims to the shoreline, and sets off through the woods. Hopelessly adapted to an aquatic propulsion because of the posterior attachment of its legs, the chick skootches itself along the ground, resting on its belly at intervals. What could possibly induce a chick to leave its familiar home and loved ones and commence such an awkward and dangerous journey?
If seen only once, a loon chick taking an ill-advised jaunt through the woods would seem like an anomaly — the behavior of a mutant and doomed animal. Indeed, when compared with typical chick behavior, such a reckless journey by a single chick seems to underscore how faithfully most chicks stick with their parents and territory.
But we have witnessed desperate overland treks of chicks many times now, beginning in 1999. On July 15th of that year, I sat on 27-acre Benedict Lake and watched a two-week-old chick get pecked mercilessly by its older sibling. Three days later the abused chick was spotted several hundred yards from the nearest shoreline of Benedict on Witches Lake Road. On July 19th I spotted the youngster again — but on Bug Lake, close to a kilometer’s distance from Benedict. Clearly the youngster had dragged itself out of its home lake, through dense woods, along a country road, and had finally come to rest on a neighboring lake.
As it happened, Bug Lake, though only 21 acres in size, also supported a loon pair. But the Benedict youngster was not well-received there. You see, the loon pair on Bug had also hatched a chick, and that chick was already six weeks old when the tiny refugee from Benedict came calling. As I watched helplessly from the shore, both the male parent on Bug and the giant Bug chick pecked at the Benedict chick, which responded by keeping its head submerged most of the time. Four days later, the Benedict chick was gone.
Followers of the blog may recall another occasion when a chick faced adversity at home, abandoned its natal lake, and bushwhacked its way to a neighboring lake. In this case too, the refugee found a loon pair that had hatched chicks. This time, though, the displaced chick, a six-week-old from Cunard Lake, had better luck. The two chicks already being cared for on the neighboring lake, Hasbrook, were scarcely a month old. Apparently the larger size of the Cunard chick helped it overcome the home-court advantage of its smaller step-siblings. It quickly joined the family and was fed and treated well by both foster parents (see Laura Unfried’s photo at the top of the page.)
A few weeks ago, a singleton chick from Bass Lake set off on a desperate journey from its home lake. No lake in either our Wisconsin or Minnesota study area is more isolated than Bass; it is at least 4 kilometers from the nearest lake inhabited by loons. Indeed, the Bass Lake chick was found wandering along a road and not near any lake. A similar event occurred when the youngest from a rare three-chick brood on Virgin Lake abandoned its home lake in early October 2019 and ended up next to a highway. Sadly, the Bass chick was too emaciated to recover despite being fed by a rehabber. The Virgin chick was fattened up and released on a large lake in the area. Although October is a bad time for a chick to be starving and try to regain its health — and migrate — there is a chance that the Virgin chick survived and made the flight southwards.
How are we to understand the decisions of chicks — ranging from two to thirteen weeks of age — to jump ship and head out across the land? I think the pattern has become clear from the four examples described here and several other cases reported by rehabbers like REGI. Food shortages on small lakes have dire consequences for loon families. Loon chicks are entirely dependent upon food in their natal lake, until they are able to fly off of it. So if food runs short (or an aggressive older sibling prevents them from getting any), chicks can either leave the lake or starve. Striking out across the land is a longshot bid by a defenseless chick at any age. It is far more likely to be eaten by a coyote or a fisher — or simply die of starvation — than to find a foster family willing to take it in. But when staying at home means certain death, even a longshot journey becomes an acceptable option.