It isn’t summer in Canada until you’ve heard the haunting call of the iconic common loon. But according to research from Bird Studies Canada, a national charity committed to the conservation of Canadian wild birds, the average number of loon chicks produced each year has continued to drop over the last 30 or so years. “We’re seeing that reproductive success is decreasing and approaching a concerning level,” says Kathy Jones, the Ontario volunteer coordinator at Bird Studies Canada. “But we’re not there yet, so it may stabilize, it may not.”
While loon productivity is higher in Western Canada than Eastern Canada, both have experienced declines. In part, this is due to acid and mercury levels within lakes, which are directly impacted by the lake’s temperature, in turn affecting food availability. Not to mention, loons must navigate the ongoing threats of boating activities, water-level fluctuations, and habitat loss due to shoreline development. “More hard surfaces, fewer naturalized shorelines, things like that have a huge impact on the species,” Jones says.
At the moment, loon pairs must produce 0.48 chicks per year in order to maintain the population. “Half a chick per year—it’s a really strange number,” Jones says. The presence of loon chicks is also a good indication that your lake is healthy. “The chicks only feed off that single lake, so if the conditions are not right on that lake for your chick to survive, there’s a problem.” If chicks survive until they’re six weeks old, then it’s considered a success by Bird Studies Canada. “It’s at that point that they’re old enough and healthy enough that they’re going to migrate off that lake for the winter.”
In order to monitor the well being of loons across the country, Bird Studies Canada introduced the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey in 1981. Born out of research into “dead” lakes caused by acid rain, the survey monitors the long-term health of loons and, more broadly, the health of Canadian lakes.
Each summer, thousands of volunteers survey hundreds of lakes across Canada, documenting loon sightings. “The minimum we need is three surveys [from each volunteer],” Jones says. But “a lot of people are up there every day in the summer checking.” Volunteers are required to conduct one survey in June for signs of nesting, one in July for chicks, and one in August to see whether the chicks survived long enough to migrate.
No experience is required to become a volunteer, you just need to be able to complete the three surveys. “We recommend doing it in conjunction with your other activities on the lake,” Jones says. “If you have a cabin that’s in the middle of nowhere that you have to get to by boat, maybe look for loons on the way there and back when you go to the cottage every time, or in your favourite fishing spot.” The data collected by volunteers will contribute to the upcoming 40-year Loon Survey Report, detailing the current health of loons and Canadian lakes.
You can sign up to be a volunteer on Bird Studies Canada’s website where a donation of any amount will enroll you as a member. Along with the observation package, volunteers receive an annual update on trends in loon reproduction rates, as well as “a lot of stewardship information.” This information can help inform lake associations and cottagers on how to interact with water birds, particularly while out on the lake. “By providing this information to steer clear and drive slow around a loon, if [cottagers] see another water bird, they can do the same thing. And we can impact greater stewardship of the lake and the birds overall.”
Being aware of our impact on loons is the first step in facilitating their survival. “The biggest thing we as humans can do for our wildlife, especially with water birds, is just decrease our disturbance,” Jones says.