I’ll just admit it: I have started to root for the elderly. While I used to support one contestant or the other based solely on geography, I now rejoice when an old individual surprises us by winning a battle against a younger opponent. Recently, for example, I have found myself more than normally excited that Justin Verlander, who at 39 is far older than most Major Leaguers, is still a dominant fireballer for my Houston Astros. Despite my lingering dislike for the Patriots, at times I catch myself admiring Tom Brady, who has continued to be an effective NFL quarterback at 44, defying the usual bounds of age.
Among loons, it is females that normally show the ability to perform well at advanced ages. The most impressive old female, without question, is Red/Green of Upper Kaubashine. After raising chicks with at least three different partners on three different lakes, Red/Green produced two chicks with a fourth male on a lake that had not seen chicks before. A few years later, she survived a bloody and violent battle that cost her the Upper Kaubashine territory, but not her life. (She is pictured above in Linda Grenzer’s photo, a few days after that battle.) The current Little Bearskin female, White/Yellow, is another example of steadfastness by a thirty-something bird. After producing 18 fledglings during a 23-year breeding career on West Horsehead Lake, she was severely injured by a fishing line last summer during her first year on Little Bearskin. White/Yellow has bounced back and is now the mother of one of our first chicks of 2022. Banded as an adult in 1996, she is at least 33 years old.
Attuned as I am to learning of female loons’ age-defying exploits, I was blind-sided by Sarah Slayton’s report from Pickerel a few days back. Upon her arrival, Sarah witnessed a nasty battle between two adults on the Pickerel-North territory. She nailed bands on the participants and was able to ascertain that this contest was between males. The contestants, she told me, were Green/Mint-Right and Blue/Red-Left. Blue/Red-Left, I thought???. Blue/Red-Left is the ancient male from Pickerel-West who was evicted from his own territory last July by a young male from Pickerel-South. That defeat was especially painful; Blue/Red and his mate were rearing two chicks at the time which were certainly killed by the new male as he solidified his hold on the territory. Lacking the strength to re-engage with the 8-year-old opponent that had recently bested him, Blue/Red evidently set his sights on a more achievable prospect — evicting the 17-year-old male a short distance up the lake whose territory has been a consistent chick producer.
We have limited information on territorial contests between old loons. Quite frankly, male contests usually involve a very predictable pair of opponents: a male (15 or older) that is past his prime and a young male (5 to 8 years of age) that has suddenly realized he is capable of defeating an older male and seizing his territory. I have to confess that I have begun to give up on old, defeated males. A few of these washed-up individuals are able to recover from eviction by settling peacefully on a vacant lake near their original territory. Some have even bounced back and reared multiple chicks on their new stomping grounds. But most males that are evicted after age 15 disappear from the study area quickly and quietly, as if stoically bowing out to make way for the younger generation.
So it was thrilling to see Blue/Red, who at 24+ years of age is well into his dotage, put himself in harm’s way, challenge the 17-year-old Pickerel-North male for his territory…and actually win the contest. To be clear, this was a battle between one of the handful of really old males in our Wisconsin Study Area and a male, Green/Mint, that is not ancient but certainly well past his prime.
What now? According to Sarah, who heroically paddled up and down the main bay of 581-acre Pickerel Lake to get the skinny on all loons on the lake, the evicted Green/Mint is now living alone on the former Pickerel-South territory, where he lived from 2010 to 2013 and fledged three chicks. With luck, he will re-pair with a new female there and possibly even nest again this year.
The burning question on Pickerel Lake is this. What happens to the Pickerel-North nesting attempt, which is within a week of hatching? Blue/Red, the ancient male that has just won this territory in battle, might decide to join the female, Copper/Yellow, and incubate the eggs as if they were his own. (We have seen evicting males do this four times in the past.) It is more likely that he will make the evolutionarily-sound decision to ignore the nest until Copper/Yellow finally abandons it. Fortunately, there is still plenty of time to nest. So we hope that Blue/Red will do what he has done in 8 previous years on the lake during an 18-year breeding career: find a good nest site, incubate the eggs patiently for 28 days with his mate, and raise two big, fat, sassy chicks. If he does so, he will have completed a rare and improbable comeback by a very old male.