As we motored around the Whitefish Chain in late May, the thought crossed my mind. As I looked over Katy and Jordana’s field notes from Minnesota in June, it occurred to me again. And by the time we banded five tightly-packed loon pairs on Ossawinnamakee Lake in a single night in July, I had become utterly convinced: there are more loons per lake, on average, in our new Minnesota study area than in our long-time study area in northern Wisconsin.

Of course, it is one thing to have a gut feeling that a natural pattern is out there and quite another to demonstrate that the pattern is real. Indeed, having enough self-discipline to wait and test a hypothesis instead of blurting it out and selling it as fact is what separates science from…..well, something less than science.

So I examined our data from both study areas. If there are more breeding loons per acre of lake in Minnesota, the difference should be evident from a statistical analysis. I looked at all lakes between 165 and 740 acres in both study areas for which we have reliable data, divided lake area by number of breeding pairs, and ran a test. The result: In our Wisconsin study area, a loon pair’s average territory size is 282 acres, while in Minnesota an average pair occupies a territory of only 180 acres. This is a highly “significant” statistical difference, which means that the huge disparity seems to represent a real pattern, not just a chance result.

What does it mean? Having done the easy part — finding a difference — we are now faced with the thorny task of explaining it. Innumerable hypotheses leap to mind. (1) The slightly different climate of central Minnesota might support a denser breeding population than the northern Wisconsin climate. (2) Lake chemistry might be more favorable in Minnesota and thus explain the difference in density. (3) Minnesotans are somewhat more apt to put out artificial nesting platforms for loons (21 of 105 territories; 20%) than are Wisconsinites (23 of 216; 11%), which might support more loon pairs. (4) Predators might be more abundant in Wisconsin and/or food scarcer. (5) Minnesota lakes might be more convoluted in shape and thus contain more natural boundaries that allow coexistence of more loon pairs on the same area of water. (However, a quick glance at lake shapes suggests the opposite — that our Minnesota lakes are more round.) (6) Human harassment of loons might be more intense in Wisconsin. (I have not noticed any such pattern, however.) In short, we have lots of questions and no answers, at present!

Now, it is important to take a step back. We have under active investigation only about 10% of all Wisconsin loons. In this beginning phase of Minnesota research, we have only 1.4% of all Minnesota loons in our study. (The nice loon photo by Katy Dahl above shows only one of about 14,000 loons in the North Star State.) So our two study areas — especially the one in Minnesota — capture only a snapshot of a small subsample of each population. The overall statewide loon densities might be quite different. Still, the two study populations are similar in numerous ways, including latitude, degree of human lake usage, and deep affection of almost all lake residents for the species. The ability of Minnesota loons to live “shoulder-to-shoulder” tells us something profound, I think, if we can only ferret it out.

Although most of our research team is long gone by September, Linda and Kevin Grenzer remain in Wisconsin. At a time of life when most folks widen the dimples in their BarcaLoungers, these two are devoting their time to rescuing injured birds. (Linda, of course, is also one of our field team members and a gifted photographer to boot!)

Linda and Kevin have gotten more proficient at rescue in recent years. Four years ago, they often found themselves hours from home on some false alarm — an eagle that was heat-stressed but recovered; a loon that seemed wounded but was merely preening. These days they insist on seeing photos or getting vivid descriptions of injured birds from experienced observers before setting out to save them.

After Ken and Joanne Lubich sent us the photo at the top of the page, it was clear that a bird was in trouble. The Lubiches keep a close eye on the two loon pairs on eyeglass-shaped Two Sisters Lake. On a routine patrol around the lake on September 13th, they were horrified to see that one of the two strapping chicks on the east lake had a huge muskie lure attached to its left leg and was swimming erratically.

It might seem difficult to find the positive here, but, in fact, this chick was fortunate. The Lubiches keep a close eye on the loons on Two Sisters and have a network of contacts who live on the lake. Thus, the distressed chick was found only a day or so after being hooked. Furthermore, Joanne and Ken know Linda and Kevin and immediately reported the hooked bird to folks who could help it.

Once they made it to Two Sisters yesterday, Linda and Kevin were able to capture the distressed chick, when it ventured close to shore. A quick inspection told them that at least two of the hooks on the lure had punctured the chick’s foot tissue and become infected. They decided to transport the bird to REGI for treatment.

As is evident from the photo below, we had captured and banded this chick. On the night of capture, July 13th, the bird weighed 2460 grams. Yesterday, the chick weighed 2470 grams, which means that it was only 10 grams heavier yesterday than it had been two months before. This tells us that the bird has lost a great deal of weight — perhaps 500 to 600 g — owing to the hooking. Needless to say, loons go downhill quickly when they are prevented from feeding themselves. This bird probably fed little or not at all for six days.

The world is looking brighter for this chick. Multiple hooks were removed from its foot. One hook was too close to a bone to remove and had to be left in the bird. (REGI staff hope that swelling in the foot will push the hook out in time.) If its injured left leg recovers, and it becomes fully mobile again, the bird will be released in a few days back on Two Sisters. Meanwhile, this loon is taking full advantage of the favorable fishing conditions provided in its temporary home!

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.

Many scientific journals are trying to add some color. That is, amidst the dry, highly-condensed scientific analysis and interpretation that is their standard fare, they are sprinkling lively photos and vignettes. These science tidbits vary from one journal to another in form and length. But all are much easier — and more fun — to look at than run-of-the-mill scientific articles.

In the past decade, I had observed the increasing frequency of short, splashy stories from a safe distance. Now that I have got scientific writing figured out, why should I diverge from it? (Okay….this blog is a dramatic departure from scientific writing, but I have settled into a good groove, so I do not count it!) In mulling over the possibility of a little splashy piece, I was not sure: 1) what I might write up as a colorful little story, 2) whether such vignettes are likely to be read widely, and 3) how hard it would be to get one published. So for many years I made no effort to report a loon finding in this new format.

The hypothesis of “spotlighting” by loon parents with chicks changed my mind. Having stumbled upon Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and read a few of their delightful little photos and attached stories, I thought: “Well, I could do one of those!” I was encouraged by the fact that my current “hot” idea, the spotlighting hypothesis, is perhaps the most exciting one I have ever had. When I made statistical findings that provided strong support for the hypothesis, I was just bursting to share them with other scientists.

Sad to say, sharing of a finding or hypothesis in the form of an “Ecopic”, as Frontiers calls their little photos/stories, is not a thorough and rigorous means of sharing. 250 words is simply too few to provide evidence in support of any idea. If you are a cynic, you might even claim that Ecopics and their ilk allow scientists to get their half-baked ideas out there without thorough scrutiny by their peers. Please take my word for it when I say that rigorous testing of the spotlighting hypothesis is very much on my mind!

Ignoring for the moment that not all is nailed down with regards to the spotlighting hypothesis, take a look at the Ecopic. My text and Linda’s photo tell a story that we had not dreamed of when intensive study of loon territorial behavior began 30 years ago. So for now, let’s put aside the uncertainty and simply enjoy what loons might be doing!

I got a phone call last week from a lake resident in Wisconsin whom I had consulted the day before about the whereabouts of a territorial pair and their chick. “She was out there along the shore with the chick this morning”, he reported. I have grown accustomed to such reports. During the incubation period, I often hear: “She was on the nest all day yesterday.” In short, humans give female loons most of the credit for parental care.

It is, of course, reasonable that we should look at birds from a mammalian perspective. In mammals, females carry young internally throughout development. For this reason, male mammals are limited in the extent to which they can contribute to the development and rearing of young. As a consequence, male mammals instead spend their time competing vigorously for access to limited females (those that are not already pregnant). Dominant males in such breeding systems often succeed in pairing with and mating with many females. Thus, the result of mammalian females carrying and nourishing young within their bodies for an extended period is that about 95% of mammalian breeding systems are polygynous (one male mated to multiple females).

In birds, females lay eggs early in the embryo stage, so young grow outside the female’s body. Leaving their developing embryos in the nest “frees up” female birds and means that male birds can contribute to warming and protection of those embryos and young just as well as females can. And female birds are also available to mate almost as often as male birds. Since there is no reproductive asymmetry, monogamous pairings (one male mated to one female) typify birds. Indeed, roughly 90% of all bird species are monogamous. In many monogamous species the father’s parental efforts are equal to or even greater than the mother’s. (Loons are a good example, as Linda Grenzer’s photo of the male on her lake shows.)

Since mammalian mating systems differ so fundamentally from avian mating systems, it makes sense that humans often misinterpret avian patterns of breeding and parental care. In other words, humans are familiar with the concept of mothers providing most of the care for offspring, so they naturally presume that an adult loon that they see feeding and protecting the chick is a female. Of course, humans are also used to seeing female ducks on the water leading a great long string of ducklings behind them, so the superficial similarity between ducks and loons reinforces the concept that maternal care should occur in loons. But loons, along with thousands of other birds, defy mammalian expectation.

I wonder if, one day, greater understanding of loon biology will prevail. It will bring a tear to my eye — and a profound sense of accomplishment — to hear this simple, rather uninformative message in my voicemail: “The chick was out there with one of the parents.”

In a recent post, I described how the popularity of loons and the willingness of many folks to pontificate about them without solid data or thoughtful scientific analysis makes loons unique. I tried to point out that this practice can be harmful, if we make misleading statements about loon conservation at a time when some loon populations are declining.

Now, let me give an example. Millions of state and federal dollars have been spent in recent decades in attempting to measure the effect of methylmercury (the toxic form of mercury) on wild animals, especially birds. Without a doubt, more funds have been spent analyzing mercury impacts on loons than on any other aspect of loon biology. What have we learned from this body of work? The major take-homes are that: 1) mercury certainly can affect behavior and survival of adult loons and chicks if it occurs in a high enough concentration in their tissues, 2) high mercury levels tend to occur mainly in loons living on small, acidic lakes, which have negative effects on loons that have nothing to do with mercury, and 3) harmful concentrations of mercury do not occur in most geographic areas within the breeding range. In short, despite an abundance of research and the expenditure of millions of research dollars across three decades, we have no direct evidence that mercury negatively impacts loon populations. In fact, the consensus among loon scientists is that mercury probably has little or no negative impact on most populations.

The situation is dramatically different with lead. Careful analysis of loon carcasses in New England has shown us that lead is quite deadly and affects a great many loons. (The featured photo above shows a deadly lead sinker in the stomach of a loon that died a few days ago in Wisconsin. Photo by Wild Instincts.) In a 2017 study, Grade et al. determined that a whopping 48.6% of the loons they examined had been killed by lead sinkers and lures. The authors estimated that this mortality rate had reduced the New Hampshire loon population by 43%.

The contrast between mercury and lead is stark. Mercury might affect loon survival and breeding success slightly in a few isolated populations. Lead has been shown to cause half of all loon deaths in one state and to make an enormous dent in the loon population of that state.

The contrast between these two toxins goes further. Mercury exposure is pushed to high levels mainly through burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, which contain mercury. So reducing loons’ exposure to mercury requires a long-term effort to reduce burning of fossil fuels over a large geographic area. In contrast, loons are exposed to lead through our use of lead sinkers and fishing lures. The remedy for lead-related loon deaths is simply to implement use of lead-free fishing tackle in lakes where loons breed. (Steel, tin, and tungsten are common alternatives). Indeed, lead bans are now in place across New England.

Here is the problem. Despite the lack of evidence that mercury affects loons in nature, mercury has become the “go-to” environmental toxin mentioned by many loon researchers. Mercury has become such a prevalent scapegoat in grants, reports, and even published papers that many of us are not keeping its limited impact on loons in proper perspective. A clear-headed, candid, objective review by a loon researcher with a strong background in mercury toxicity would do wonders for loon conservation. At a time when studies have just reported long-term declines in two loon populations, those of us trying to conserve loons would do well to focus our attention on the real enemy.

I have never done this before. This year, though, I felt that I made such demands upon the field team of the Loon Project that I should take a moment at the end of the season to talk about each of the stout souls who are pictured above.

Bailee is from Missouri and had never seen a loon before she started in May. Though she does not seem very southern, she gracefully absorbed no end of jokes about being a southerner this summer. (“Missouri is in the Midwest!”, she protested.) She has a cheerful disposition and a ready smile, which were often valuable when we found ourselves seven hours into a night of loon capture, surrounded by thick fog, and unable to find any loons to catch. “I thought I was going to die in the first two weeks of work”, she admitted last night over pizza. “I mean….I couldn’t even lift a canoe onto my truck. After that, I adjusted.” Bailee grew into a committed and strong field observer and really stepped up to assume the duty of netting loons when my back gave out in late July and I needed a break.

Sarah, a Michigander and recent graduate of MSU, exudes a determined confidence. She too found she needed to adjust to all of the canoe lifting and miles of paddling in the first few weeks. After a recent summer studying endangered Piping Plovers, though, Sarah found she enjoyed studying a species that numbered more than a single breeding pair! Sarah became an excellent field worker and contributed in many unseen ways to keep the wheels on the Project spinning. Sarah took the lead, for example, in recording territorial yodels given by males to support an ongoing study we are doing. She also took lots of great photos and helped me start our “Loonstagram” account. (We are “loonproject”, for those with an Instagram account and a desire to follow us!) Sarah will always be remembered as the person who undertook a thorough search for — and ultimately found — a boat trailer key that had been lost for seven years!

Tia is a current Chapman student who took and excelled in my Intro Bio course there. Tia grew up in southern California and had never spent meaningful time in the East or Midwest. It was sometimes funny to witness her reactions to the climate and conditions in northern Wisconsin. My personal favorite: “It’s SO GREEN here!” Tia found the hordes of mosquitos that hounded us in the evenings as bizarre and horrid. Frankly, she showed enormous guts in taking on an internship on an intensive field project for the first time and in an area she had not visited previously. Like all new folks, she took some time to learn the ropes and become productive in the field. But she did adjust. She eventually got so proficient with banding that she helpfully barked out instructions for us at each step in the process!

Jordana is a UConn Huskie, and she brings an added northeastern twang and attitude to the study. Already a thousand miles from home during the training period in Wisconsin, Jordana bravely volunteered to venture farther west still to help build the new Minnesota study population. She is unusual in taking time to think and ask questions about loons based on her experiences and observations. It was Jordana, for example, who became concerned about what appeared a high rate of nest abandonment by loons during June. She advanced the hypothesis — which I look forward to testing — that the heat wave during early June might have caused eggs to overheat on many nests. She and Katy made invaluable efforts to pioneer our field study in Minnesota by finding new lakes, loons, and friendly lake residents.

Like Jordana, Katy volunteered to help put together a marked loon population in Minnesota. A Minnesotan herself, Katy quickly took to the work of loon study. Her skills as a canoeist and boater, tireless work ethic, and willingness to tackle any job made her immensely valuable to the study. She and Jordana developed a huge network of friends and contacts in the Crosslake area and found dozens of loon pairs with chicks that we could capture and mark as we worked to establish a new study population. Katy is an accomplished trouble-shooter. I will always remember how Katy solved the problem of how to strap a canoe onto Bailee’s truck. While I gnashed my teeth, pulled out my hair, and got nothing done, Katy calmly searched for a cargo rack that would fit, ordered it, and installed it!

Finally, Martha and Allison, veterans from 2020 field season, agreed to return for two weeks in July to help with loon scouting and capture in Minnesota. This wasn’t easy. Each had job responsibilities and needed to carve out time for the loons. As experienced hands, these two took lots of pressure off of me as we bought a boat and motor, readied our supplies and equipment, sweated equipment failure — and, most important, caught and marked Minnesota loons and chicks at a record pace (over ten a night) to lay the groundwork for a field study of marked individuals starting in 2022.

We on the Loon Project are in the habit of doing more with less. Our ability to accomplish so much depends upon the willingness of young people like this year’s Wisconsin and Minnesota field teams to tackle new physical challenges, conquer them, and emerge with high quality data on loon behavior and ecology. (In the process, of course, we hope that they have grown and acquired valuable field experience that will serve them well in their careers.) I am immensely proud of Bailee, Sarah, Tia, Jordana, Katy, Martha, and Allison. I shake hands and fill out paperwork, but these folks really ARE the project. Thanks, you guys!

I have always had mixed feelings about Katherine Lake. At 524 acres, it is far too large to be covered comfortably by canoe. Indeed, for the first 15 years of our study, Katherine was that big lake we drove past on our way to other, smaller lakes. In 2008 one of my field interns put in at the boat landing and found one pair with chicks…then another. We came in at night and banded all four adults. That settled it: Katherine was one of our study lakes — if one that everyone dreaded being assigned to cover. Over time, Katherine became less feared and just another study lake.

Yet Katherine seemed a tough place for loons from early on. In late May of 2009, the female of one of the two banded pairs injured her wing severely and died in short order. Two years later, her mate became hopelessly entangled in fishing line, yet was impossible to capture until he became very weak. He too died. The same year a five-year-old floater on the lake was hooked in the neck by an angler. This loon was caught and de-hooked; but we never saw it afterwards. Six years ago, an evicted male from Lake Seventeen took refuge on Katherine and tried year after year to raise chicks with his mate — without success. The situation seemed to reach an all-time low point in 2020, when, having placed their nest on a small, promising island, the male and his unbanded mate watched one egg and then the other roll off of their oddly sloping nest and into the lake. The male succumbed to lead poisoning on Lake Michigan last fall.

The outlook on Katherine is brighter at the moment. The death of the breeding male last fall opened up an opportunity. In the continuing rash of territory shifting that has occurred around Hazelhurst, a new male and female moved onto Katherine from nearby Lower Kaubashine Lake. The new male has had an especially colorful past. He lived on Upper Kaubashine from 2017 to 2019 and mysteriously moved to Lower Kaubashine in 2020 before finally coming to rest on Katherine three months ago. Thus, he has attempted to breed on three different Hazelhurst lakes in the past three years.

One might think of such an itinerant past as a recipe for disaster or perhaps an indication of poor breeding ability. But the new male has put the lie to all doubters by raising two strapping chicks this year. The Katherine female, who remained on Lower Kaubashine for a week or so in May after her mate left — as if having doubts about the move — was rewarded for following her mate. (Males are the limiting sex in the northern Wisconsin population, so a shortage of potential partners probably helped convince her to pull up stakes and abandon Lower Kaubashine for Katherine.)

So a lake like Katherine that seems snakebit can turn it around. It gets better. My gloomy assessment of Flannery Lake from a few months ago requires revision. Breaking a long streak of breeding frustration and failure, the Flannery pair finally has a healthy chick. I am by nature reluctant to trumpet such achievements, because I fear they will be followed by more struggles. But it is safe to say that Katherine, Flannery — and northern Wisconsin in general — can celebrate a better-than-average breeding year.

The weary Wisconsin Capture Team after our final night of work. August 2nd, 4:30 a.m.

One of the challenges of studying loons is that they are so well-loved. Many people have observed them, written down notes about them, and — here’s the problem — shared their speculations about all aspects of loon biology with others. Those of us who study loons are in a position of power, because the public looks to us for information. It takes some humility, when a journalist asks us a question about loons, to admit that we do not know the answer. Admitting ignorance is embarrassing. It disappoints the questioner. It makes us feel inadequate and uninformed. Yet admitting ignorance is vital. Our willingness to say we understand fully some aspect of loon biology that we do not — on websites, at conferences and in print — poses great problems for loon science and conservation.

Wait. Published material on loons should help move our understanding forward, right? Yes and no. Well-researched, robust science on loons improves our understanding; anecdotal, speculative work based on small samples of loons, inexpertly analyzed, and passed off as fact does not. In the field of loon behavior and ecology, a huge “grey literature” exists, which consists of popular loon articles, books, websites, unpublished Master’s theses, and low-brow pseudo-science that eked its way into the lower echelons of science journals. When such sketchy information makes up the majority of the material publicly available about loons, there is a real danger that speculation and pseudo-science might drown out real science.

There is good news, however. Our understanding of loon biology is better now than ever before. Across the continent, loon researchers have started to mark individual loons, examine many aspects of their ecology and behavior, use powerful statistical tests, and publish their findings regarding loons in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This last step is critical, because peer review means that three or more scientists are criticizing a paper submitted for publication anonymously and candidly before publication. In most cases, scientists who review loon research do not themselves study loons, so they can bring an important bit of objectivity to the process and read what a loon scientist writes without preconceived notions about the species. Reviewers who are not loon researchers, in effect, are helping pull the study of loons into the mainstream of scientific research. If scientific studies on loons are treated with the same level of rigor as those on fruit flies, downy woodpeckers, wolves, elephant seals, and angelfish, loon science will eventually become as robust and reliable as science carried out on other species.

Such rigor in loon study is long overdue. Now that we see multiple populations of loons declining in number or reproductively, we must do better. We need to advance from “there are still loons on my lake, so the population is stable” to careful, longitudinal quantification of adult survival, juvenile survival, breeding success, and other demographic parameters that can contribute to a valid statistical population model.

Why does it matter? Because when we fall into that very human trap of expounding upon a topic without a foundation of scientific fact, people sometimes listen and use our pronouncements in ways that we did not foresee. Case in point: the Minnesota loon population. Any population ecologist who looks at the data — well, lack of data, in this case — will tell you the following. We truly have no idea whether the population of loons in Minnesota is rising, falling, or remaining steady. We simply have not marked adults, carefully recorded their rate of return to their territories, measured the number of chicks they have produced, marked those chicks, measured the rate at which those chicks return, and plugged all of these data into a statistical model. Without such a thoughtful, complete analysis of survival and reproductive success, any statements about the Minnesota loon population are simply speculation — speculation that could be seized by others to undermine conservation efforts. Indeed, one difficulty faced by the “Get the Lead Out Minnesota” campaign (which anyone who loves loons and wildlife should support strongly) is that there are many baseless statements to the effect that the Minnesota loon population is stable in the media and the grey literature.

So, a plea. Let’s emulate population ecologists in describing our knowledge of loon populations in Minnesota and elsewhere. Let’s apply rigorous techniques and wait until the research has run its course to reach any conclusions. In the meantime, let’s have the courage to utter those most honest but difficult few words: “We don’t know”.