We have had an exciting last few weeks. First, our paper on population decline in northern Wisconsin has been the most frequently read paper in Condor: Ornithological Applications every single day during the past three weeks. Of course, I jinxed it, and when I looked just now I found that we have fallen and are only the second-most read paper! In any event, we seem to be getting the word out about problems that loons are facing in the Upper Midwest.

Second, Brian Hoover’s paper that describes and explains lake preferences of juvenile loons — those that have just fledged and become independent of their parents — has just come out. Brian’s paper shows that juveniles tend to visit lakes that have similar pH to their natal lakes and also that they use large lakes with a variety of fish species present. In other words, if we are to preserve the Upper Midwest loon population, we must look out not only for lakes where loons nest but also those lakes nearby where juveniles fatten themselves up to prepare for migration.

Third, our collaboration with Sarah Saunders of Audubon has borne fruit; Sarah’s paper has just been accepted by Journal of Animal Ecology and should appear as an accepted article in the next week or two. Her model, which combined measures of land use, climate, and our study population, indicates that the North Atlantic Oscillation — a fluctuating climatic pattern that is projected to increase under climate change — is having a net negative impact on both adult loon survival and chick production in northern Wisconsin. The pattern is complex, but it dovetails logically with the population trends we have seen in northern Wisconsin. The simplest interpretation of her findings is that the North Atlantic Oscillation affects food levels on the loons’ wintering grounds, which, in turn, impact survival and subsequent chick production. Sarah also found that increased human development reduced adult loon survival. Most alarmingly, Sarah’s simulations of the next decade all project decline for the northern Wisconsin population, just as our Condor paper did. So, we must look for more ways to boost loon breeding success and adult survival on the breeding grounds in an effort to counter what is a most worrisome trend.

Sarah’s findings place new urgency on my efforts to understand all 12 months that constitute a year in a loon’s life. Most recently, I have batch-plotted recoveries of loons banded in northern Wisconsin that covered distances of more than about 200 miles. As you can see from the featured image above, we have a lot of these data. (You might have to click on the title in the e-mail to see the map.) Leaving aside the small number of interesting shifts westward and northward, the photo confirms the wintering pattern that I mentioned in a recent post. Our Upper Midwest loons winter in large numbers along both coasts of Florida — especially the Gulf Coast. About a quarter of our loons, however, winter off of the Carolinas, especially North Carolina. Concerned as I am with the increased rate of mortality among adults in recent years, I cannot help thinking that hazards along these coastlines are creating trouble for them. Clearly while I can use the fall, winter, and early spring to rest and recover after intense field work during May, June, July and August, my study animals do not have that luxury.

No, I am not talking about the Buccaneers. Kansas City and Tampa are both far from anywhere I have spent meaningful time. Besides, KC won last year, and Tom Brady has won countless times. Enough already!

I am talking about Tampa Bay the place — the large, protected inlet halfway down the west coast of the Florida peninsula. Loon enthusiasts should love Tampa Bay because it serves as the wintering grounds for a good many loons from the Upper Midwest. In fact, so far 33 of 53 recoveries of loons banded by the Loon Project and others in the Upper Midwest — sadly, these are mostly loons found dead on the beach or elsewhere and reported to the Bird Banding Lab in Maryland — have come from Florida’s Gulf Coast, between Pensacola and the Keys. By chance, or more likely just because it is an area of dense population, a good percentage of these birds come from the Tampa Bay area.

This is not a brand new finding. Kevin Kenow of USGS has used satellite transmitters to track loons from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan and reached the conclusion that Florida’s Gulf Coast is a vital wintering area for our birds. He puts the percentage of Upper Midwest loons that winter there at above 70%. So we have two separate lines of evidence that tell the same story about the wintering location of Upper Midwest loons. Well, okay, you must be thinking, our loons have to winter somewhere. Why does it matter where exactly? It matters because, while we only see them in the summer and tend to focus only on their trials and tribulations during summer, our loons must also survive on their southward migration, sustain themselves on the wintering grounds, and then make it through another northward migratory journey in order to get back to us each year. Of the period during which it is out of our sight, a typical loon from our area spends four to five months on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

When you learn where breeding animals are spending their winters, conditions on the wintering ground suddenly get very real. During the past two decades, ecologists have improved in the ability to track individual animals (usually birds) from breeding to wintering locations, using such tools as satellite transmitters and geolocators. They have also learned that migratory trips do not somehow “reset” an individual so that all individuals that have migrated to the breeding ground start on equal footing. Instead, a difficult (or easy) migration or wintering period leaves a lasting imprint on an animal, placing it at a disadvantage (or giving it an advantage) during the next phase of its life history. Such impacts are called “carryover effects” and have become hot topics for investigation. Surges or declines in breeding populations, we now see, can be as easily explained by events on the wintering grounds as those during the breeding season.

We are at an early stage in our analysis of breeding season impacts on wintering loons and vice-versa. In fact, we know nothing about carryover effects in loons. But now that we are zeroing in on wintering locations of loons from different breeding populations, the stage is set to look for such patterns. At the moment, I have set my sights on a less lofty goal. You might recall my post in June 2020, when I pointed out how many adult loons had failed to return to Wisconsin in spring of 2020 after leaving in fall 2019. The simplest explanation for this very low return rate of Wisconsin breeding adults is that some event occurred during the winter of 2019-2020 along the Florida Gulf Coast that killed many loons there. More broadly, I have begun to explore data that Florida wildlife officials collect annually on red tides and other environmental events that threaten ocean-dwelling animals. Could fluctuations in annual survival rates of loons in Wisconsin be explained by mortality events recorded along the Florida Gulf Coast?

Science is, by nature, cumulative. Theories put forward centuries, decades, or years ago form the foundation of ideas we test today. If those theories fail to explain patterns we see in nature, they are refined or discarded and replaced by new theories that themselves must be tested ceaselessly and revised or rejected.

For our part, we scientists spend years learning our field, which means achieving a deep understanding of the sweeping theories that have withstood the test of time. We also must have an intimate knowledge of recent findings of colleagues in the sub-discipline that forms the context of our own research.

The way that scientists carry out the scientific process should sound robust and logical. It is. This approach has led to steady progress in our understanding of the world and a guarantee that — although we may occasionally take a wrong turn in understanding some process or phenomenon — we shall not stray too far and for too long.

But the innate teamwork that typifies the scientific process has a major drawback. So desperate are scientists to keep up with discoveries and hypotheses of others in our own discipline that we expect to replicate their findings in our own work. Of course, such replication is vital to the scientific process; repeated similar findings confirm for scientists that we are seeing consistent patterns and have a solid understanding of nature. In our tendency to look for and find what others have found, though, we are often blind to what is novel. Indeed, if we discover some oddity, we are more likely than not to try to reconcile it with current theory by treating it as an aberration or an artifact of our procedures, rather than a truly new pattern that we do not yet understand.

So it was with spotlighting by loons. For years, I had observed the visits of territorial loons to their neighbors’ lakes. This behavior was curious, to be sure, but my training convinced me that these visits must have an explanation within the fabric already woven by other scientists. No, we would not expect territorial pairs with chicks ever to leave them at home and visit their neighbors with chicks. It made no sense. But until I took a long, hard, robust look at our data, I simply shrugged and trusted that someday we would be able to make sense of it based on what my scientific colleagues had found in other species.

On the other hand, all scientists are aware of this bit of wisdom familiar to fans of Sherlock Holmes:

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. —Arthur Conan Doyle

Most ecologists encounter this situation seldom. It is, as you must imagine, a most unsettling outcome. However, in trying to test hypotheses to explain intrusions by loons with chicks into neighboring lakes, I encountered this situation exactly. Territorial loons, I thought, might be visiting their neighbor’s territories to look for food. That possibility did not stand up to scrutiny; intruders rarely forage during intrusions. Neighboring pair members, I reasoned, might intrude to learn about nearby territories, so that they would be positioned to “trade up” to a new one, given the opportunity. This possibility works for neighbors that failed to produce chicks, which sometimes trade up to the territory next door, but not for neighbors that hatched chicks themselves, which do not. Neighbors with chicks might intrude because — if they wish to draw attention away from their own chicks — they must go somewhere. This explanation fails because parents would be better off, in that case, visiting one of the many uninhabited lakes throughout the study area, where they could forage without interference from other loons and replenish their energy reserves. The fact that parents target other territories with chicks in precise, laser-like fashion rather than studiously avoiding them indicates that they are visiting specific territories with a specific goal. Thus, the improbable explanation that remains after all impossibilities fall away is spotlighting.

To conclude that loons are reciprocally spotlighting each other’s chicks is unsettling. No one has ever proposed such a convoluted mechanism of territory defense before. Our ability to develop the spotlighting hypothesis depended upon knowing loon behavior intimately. When you consider that: 1) nonbreeding floaters are obsessed with finding chicks to gauge territory quality for eviction attempts, 2) pairs with chicks are desperate to hide them from floaters, and 3) floaters are strongly attracted to other adults already intruding in a territory, it is not a great conceptual leap to suppose that adults eager to hide their own chicks would visit the neighbors to draw floaters to the neighbors’ territory and the neighbors’ chicks.

Since I am on a roll, I will add that the form of eavesdropping that loon pairs appear to do on each other’s yodels to keep track of each other’s breeding success is rather novel. That is, behavioral ecologists have long known the animals listen to each other and intercept each other’s messages in order to boost their own reproductive opportunities. Nightingales, for example, use their neighbors’ songs to determine where intruders are, so that they can defend their territories more effectively. But the kind of eavesdropping that I propose in loons — whereby loons use intercepted yodels to learn about neighbors’ chicks, spotlight neighbors’ chicks, and thus cause nonbreeders to evict neighbors — is far more sinister. The fact that eavesdroppers are causing harm to the loons whose yodels they intercept sets the loon system apart from other forms of eavesdropping that have been described in animals.

2009 video from Spider Lk, Oneida County.

I know. Web sites, books, “loon experts” — and our own hearts — tell us that loons are fundamentally good. Even when a pair with chicks hides them along a shoreline while confronting a raft of intruders, all of the attendees of the social gathering seem so respectful to each other, so congenial. But I am going to ask you to take the same sort of journey that I did as a scientist recently. Despite having been steeped for decades in narrow, Pollyannaish loon lore that holds that all loons are friends and are looking out for each other and the population as a whole, open your mind to the possibility that loons, like humans, do not always see eye to eye. Maybe, like me, you will find that this brings you closer to them.

We have had a good week on the Loon Project. A few days ago, the November 2020 issue of Condor: Ornithological Applications came out that contains our article on the declining loon population in northern Wisconsin. Our article was selected as an “Editor’s Choice” for the issue! Linda’s photo graces the cover, and it

features Linda’s “own” loons in a touching embrace. Of course, there is brutal irony here. The article documents the fact that there are fewer and fewer two-chick broods in the Northwoods these days. Linda’s picture, therefore, displays an exception to the trend of reduced breeding success in the past quarter century.

Speaking of our article, as of today it is the one most frequently read by visitors to the journal’s website. I take heart to see this; maybe that means that we are getting the word out that Wisconsin’s loon population should not be taken for granted. During my optimistic moments, I hope that attention focused on the fragility of our population and its current downward trend might help us take the first easy and obvious step to help loons. What is this step? First, we must get rid of lead sinkers and jigs, which kill many Wisconsin loons each year painfully and needlessly. This requires simply having the sense of responsibility to replace all of the sinkers and jigs in our tackle boxes with lead replacements that work just as well but do not kill loons and other wildlife. If we take this simple step and — here’s the hard part — have the chutzpah to ask our friends and relatives and neighbors to do the same, we can start a wave and get it done. Are you willing to step up and do this for Wisconsin’s loons?

A second piece of good news for the Project this week was the acceptance for publication of our collaborative paper on climatic and land-use impacts hurting the northern Wisconsin loon population. As with the just-published Condor article, this accomplishment is decidedly bittersweet. While it is nice to have your work recognized as important and worthy of publication, it is a shame to see yet more scientific evidence that spells trouble for loons.

After I explained that breeding loons must learn about their neighbors’ chicks through yodeling of neighboring males, my mother-in-law shot back:

Wouldn’t that behavior be counterproductive for the yodelling male and hence, be modified in his progeny……….unless it’s paired with positive results. What would that be? What’s the point of the yodel once he has a mate?

There are a couple of points to address here. First, a small one. Joanne implies that male loons — like most songbirds — use the yodel to attract a mate. The concept that bird song is a signal to potential mates is so firmly entrenched in our brains that we almost take it for granted. We know that most males that yodel are already paired with a female (like the Manson Lake male in Linda’s awesome photo, above). So, at best, mate advertisement could only be one of multiple functions of the call. Alas, though, we have no data on this question. I know — the yodel as a signal to potential mates seems a simple idea — but no one has yet played yodels from a territory in April and early May and counted the ratio of males and females that hear the yodels and visit the territory. If yodels function as advertisement for a mate, of course, we would expect a high proportion of all visitors to a territory from which yodels are emanating to be unpaired females. Sounds like a good Masters’ project!

Now on to Joanne’s main point. She is absolutely correct that behavior, like other biological traits of animals, should not occur unless it increases fitness — that is, unless it increases the number of offspring produced by the individual showing the behavior — and, hence, the number of individuals that possess that trait in the next generation. So yodels by males should not have evolved if all they do is bring the neighbors in from next door to spotlight the chicks! However, as Joanne suggests, we might sometimes expect that a behavior could have two (or more) impacts on evolutionary fitness. In other words, behavior might affect fitness negatively in one way, yet provide a benefit in another way that more than offsets the negative impact.

Now let’s apply this concept of “multiple impacts” to the loon case. Based on published work, we know that yodels are useful to loons in that they: 1) prevent landings of intruders that might evict a territory owner, and 2) keep intruders that have entered a territory from approaching the chicks closely. Therefore, I surmise that these two fitness-enhancing consequences of yodels are so beneficial to yodelers that they more than offset the negative impact of increased spotlighting of chicks by neighbors. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that it is very difficult to measure the impact of behaviors on fitness precisely, so we must be content, at this point, to know that yodels are beneficial in some ways and costly in others.

In thinking about Joanne’s question some more, let me provide a bit of context for the idea of spotlighting. While it is an exciting advance for loon biology to learn that loons are probably spotlighting each other’s chicks, “eavesdropping” on each other’s yodels is not surprising to behavioral ecologists. Eavesdropping, defined as intercepting of signals directed at a specific receiver by a third party that is not the intended target of the signal, turns out to be widespread in animals and makes a lot of sense. If you are a young loon floater trying to obtain a territory — especially a male floater — you would benefit immensely from listening to the territorial defense signals of established males in your neighborhood, since yodels are known to convey information about the identity, body size, body condition, age, and motivation to attack of the yodeler. If you hear from his yodel that a certain male is large and likely to be aggressive to intruders, you would do well to avoid landing on his territory!

Eavesdropping is one of several phenomena that behavioral ecologists have discovered by taking a second look at animal behaviors that seemed not to square completely with known behavior patterns. Another such phenomenon is “prospecting” by young animals looking to settle in a region. Young adults of many species that are in search of breeding territories explore their habitat extensively in one year and then settle the next year in specific areas where they had detected cues indicating successful reproduction (such as the sight or sound of offspring) the year before. Loons prospect for territories too.

Prospecting?? Eavesdropping?? Wow…..loons sound more like us every day!

If you have been reading my posts, you are aware that we now have good evidence for spotlighting of chicks. That is, our data suggest that: 1) parents of chicks systematically visit neighbors that also have chicks; 2) the added presence of these visitors draws in more young adult “floaters” to those neighboring lakes; 3) some of the floaters induced to visit neighboring lakes spot the neighboring chicks; and 4) these added chick detections by floaters result in increased attempts to evict the neighboring pair during the following year. Thus, adult loons with chicks draw the attention of local floaters to neighboring lakes and chicks and away from their own lake and chicks, decreasing the risk of losing their own territory to eviction.

Like most newly discovered behavioral processes, spotlighting alters the landscape and forces us to inspect some aspects of loon behavioral ecology more closely. Here is one puzzle raised by spotlighting: how do loons with chicks find out about the chicks of neighbors? Put another way, how does a breeding pair that is in the midst of protecting, feeding, and hiding their own young have time to spy on the neighbors so that they know where to spotlight? Remember that floaters, unlike established breeders, have no territories or chicks to defend, so they can spend weeks and weeks doing nothing but obsessively intruding into lakes to spot chicks and thus planning future eviction attempts. Territorial breeders with chicks, in contrast, must defend their territory, incubate eggs, and forage for and guard chicks. At best, they only have an hour here or there when they might leave their chicks behind and search for the chicks of others.

The answer probably has to do with territorial yodels. Yodels — like the one I recorded above on Muskellunge Lake (Lincoln Co.) in 2008 — are quite rare, and they occur mostly in a few narrow contexts. Specifically, yodels are frequent in all territories during the first few weeks after territory resettlement in the spring, are quite infrequent throughout incubation, and then suddenly spike again right at the time of hatching. This very precise, predictable pattern of territorial yodels thus conveys reliable breeding information to all loons (and knowledgeable humans) within acoustic range. Imagine, for a moment, that you are a territorial loon with close territorial neighbors both north and south of you. You hear: 1) an early burst of yodels from the north in late April and early May, 2) few or no yodels from the north for a four-week period, 3) a sudden burst of yodels from the north over a two-week period, and 4) occasional yodels for a few more weeks after that. This yodel pattern almost certainly indicates that a loon pair settled on the territory north of you, incubated their eggs for four weeks, hatched chicks, and reared them successfully for at least several weeks. Hence, this yodel profile from the north territory gives you vital information about the presence or absence of chicks without you ever having to leave the safety of your own territory. In fact, you might even be able to infer whether the north pair has two chicks or only one, because males defending two chicks yodel about three times as often as males defending a singleton chick! The fate of the breeding efforts of the pair to the south of you will also be evident acoustically. If you hear the same pattern of yodels to the south as you heard from the north, you know that the south pair too has a chick or chicks. And if the south pair yodels often only in April and May but seldom during the remainder of the summer, then they have failed to hatch chicks. When we look at the system closely, therefore, we realize that the fact that a breeding pair can collect a wealth of information about the neighbors without ever leaving their territory makes it much easier for them to detect the chicks of neighbors than it is for floaters (which intrude only occasionally) to do so.

In summary, the greatest puzzle regarding spotlighting — “How do breeding pairs know where to do it?” — is easily solved. Furthermore, scientists salivate at a behavioral system of this kind. Why? Because we can do a simple experiment to confirm it. Specifically, we can record yodels from Lake A, which is adjacent to Lake B, play Lake A yodels back to the pair with chicks on Lake B so as to simulate chick production on Lake A, and see if the Lake B pair intrudes into Lake A to spotlight the chicks there. If, as we surmise, pairs with chicks are spotlighting neighbors’ chicks, we should be able to induce a pair with chicks to intrude into a neighboring lake without chicks by playing yodels to them in a seasonal pattern that simulates settlement, incubation, and hatching of chicks by the pair next door!

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.

I have spent my entire academic career making logical deductions about animal behavior. In the early 1990s, I was part of a team of ecologists at Purdue University studying the peculiar cooperative breeding behavior of stripe-backed wrens in central Venezuela. This species could hardly be more different from the common loon. Stripe-backed wrens live in social groups of up to 10 adults, headed by a dominant male and a dominant female, which, we thought, were the only group members to breed. The other group members comprised adult offspring of the dominant male and female that had remained at home as breeding helpers instead of dispersing to breed on their own. When DNA fingerprinting revealed that subordinate males in some groups sired young through matings with dominant females, it surprised us. Seeking to follow up on the striking genetic pattern, I reasoned that the behavior of the wrens should reflect the mixed paternity of the offspring. Specifically, I predicted that: 1) subordinate males were probably actively pursuing matings with dominant females, 2) dominant females were likely seeking out matings with subordinate males, and 3) dominant males were probably not happy about these liaisons and might be expected to attack subordinate males in an effort to deter their amorous proclivities.

My predictions were not rocket science, of course. Though we had no inkling from past behavioral observations that anything but strict monogamy was occurring in wren groups, it stood to reason that we had missed some social behavior that might have clued us in to the mixed parentage pattern we discovered in the lab. Indeed, my behavioral study of the wrens during April and May of 1990 and 1991 revealed all three predicted behavior patterns. During the “fertile period” of the dominant female, the dominant male and various male helpers vied to remain in close proximity and copulate with her when she was receptive. Aggression among competing males was fierce. Dominant females, it seemed, encouraged competition among males wishing to mate by openly advertising their readiness to mate. However, this suite of aggressive and mating behaviors only occurred in “stepmother groups” — those in which a past dominant female that was the mother of all the male helpers had died and been replaced by a “stepmother” from an unrelated outside group. In fact, the death of a dominant female was a crucial event in a wren group, because it turned a staid, monogamous breeding system into all-out warfare between her husband and sons to mate with her successor. Sorry…….I had not meant to go on about my old wren work, but those interested can check out this paper.

Here is my point. As I said, one could hardly hope to find two species more different than common loons and stripe-backed wrens. From the standpoint of a behavioral ecologist, the wrens would seem to offer a cornucopia of research opportunities: helping behavior, living in social groups, deferred breeding by helpers, mating competition. Many questions about the complex wren breeding system remain unanswered. (It does not help that one must travel to an unstable country that generally dislikes Americans and tolerate dreadful living conditions on a ranch overrun by aggressive feral pigs.) But one lesson I have learned is that close scrutiny of any animal’s behavior reveals unsuspected richness and complexity.

The monogamous mating system of loons would seem to offer little to the behavioral ecologist. But the peculiar — possibly unique — system by which young adults seek to learn about breeding territories and established breeders seek to deter their efforts is a gold mine. Consider late-summer social gatherings. The three sets of attendees at these gatherings have recently come into sharp focus, as I describe in a new page I have added to the website. Now that we understand which loons are attending social gatherings and why, we can generate specific predictions about how different attendees should behave that provides a framework for future research.

If members of a territorial pair are trying to safeguard their territorial tenure from floaters, which try to find chicks and use chicks as a badge of quality to target pair members for eviction, pair members should take pains to hide their chicks from floaters during social gatherings like the one shown below.

Thus, we can predict that parents of chicks should lead floaters and other intruders at social gatherings away from the part of the lake where their chicks are hiding and generally discourage exploration of their breeding lake. Furthermore, parents with chicks should behave aggressively towards intruders in cases where a “flotilla” of adult loons approaches the place where the chicks are stowed. How should breeding pairs behave that have failed to produce chicks? They should encourage intruders to explore all parts of their territory, because they want floaters to conclude that there are no chicks present and that the territory is not worth fighting for. For their part, floaters should always try to move about the territory as widely as possible in an effort to spot any chicks present. Finally, how should intruding neighbors behave? Like floaters, intruding neighbors should wander widely in another pair’s territory and induce other intruders to do likewise, in order to maximize the likelihood that floaters spot the chicks of the home pair and return the next year to evict them. In cases where one or two loons appear to “lead” the flotilla about the territory, such as the two left-hand adults in the video, the leaders should tend be floaters or intruding neighbors, not members of the home pair (unless the home pair is without chicks).

Naturally, it will take a lot of work by observers skilled at identifying loons from color bands to test these fine-grained, specific predictions about loon behavior during social gatherings. But now that our long-term probing of loon social behavior has exposed a richly textured system of social information and deception, I relish the challenge.

Having just posted about our discovery that loons with chicks are in a desperate struggle to protect long-term territory ownership by hiding their own chicks and “spotlighting” neighbors’ chicks, I kept thinking: “That is pretty cool! How can I let others in science know about it?”

In looking for a suitable journal where I could submit our new paper detailing that finding, I came across the high-impact journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Our entire data paper turns out to be too long and the subject matter not appropriate for a full-length paper in Frontiers. But, while leafing through the journal, I saw that it also publishes 150- to 250-word blurbs accompanied by crisp photos that together describe an “Aha!” moment you had as an ecologist — a moment when you discovered some pattern that answered a burning question or opened up a new field of study.

That piqued my interest. Since I study the most photogenic animal on the planet and work with a talented photographer, I thought I would take a flyer, work up the nasty neighbor story, include a couple of Linda’s photos, and see what the journal said.

The writing was sheer agony. 250 words is a laughable number for explaining a tricky concept like spotlighting of neighbors’ chicks, because you have to introduce the species, explain the territorial system, describe loon chicks and their behavior, and — most challenging of all — explain the complex system of information-gathering by floaters and intrusions by territory owners that underlies the nasty neighbor story. I wore out my “delete” key writing this tiny, unbelievably dense piece.

But it was worth it. Less than 24 hours after I sent the blurb in, the editor accepted it. Linda and I are thrilled. I think my tofurkey will taste a little better this year! Sorry…..I am unable to show you the piece here because we have signed a form preventing that until publication. I promise to post a link as soon as Frontiers publishes it.