A common loon’s iconic wail provides the summer soundtrack to northern waters. Their striking black and white breeding plumage and impressive ability to dive for fish captivate all who are lucky enough to spot them. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service want to tell you about one particularly impressive pair of common loons - a pair that’s made up of both of the oldest known common loons in the world.
Since 1997, a breeding pair of common loons has been meeting up and raising young at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, roughly halfway between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. As it turns out, this pair is made up not only of the oldest documented common loons in the world, they are also noted as one of the most productive pairs. What makes this situation even more impressive is that common loons do not typically mate for life. Despite all odds, these old birds have been in it for the long haul, and their special bond continues to pay off.
Identifying birds and observing behavior
Leg bands help identify individual birds so researchers can track their age and movements while observing their behavior without disruption. Refuge biologists banded the male known as ‘ABJ’ in 1987 when he was a young chick, which makes him the oldest common loon of an exact known age. In 1990, on the same waters, researchers banded a female known as ‘Fe’ when she was already a successful mother, making her at least 4 years old. ‘Fe’ has lived on to become the oldest known common loon overall.
Thriving in ideal habitat
What’s the secret to long life and a successful family? Is it good genetics? Good food? A big part of this pair’s success is likely related to where they've chosen to live. Their summer home in the quiet waters among the pines and northern hardwood forests of the Upper Peninsula provides the right combination of food, water and shelter. Seney National Wildlife Refuge is a remote refuge of more than 95,000 acres where more than a dozen common loon pairs breed and raise their young in the summer months. Because these refuge waters are closed to boating, the loons benefit from added security.
Common loons are well adapted to life in the water, but are clumsy on land. They choose nesting sites that are close to the water’s edge, but away from mainland predators, allowing them to quickly escape into the water if they feel threatened. Chicks can swim and dive shortly after hatching, but are so buoyant they can't get very far under water. It takes a few weeks for young to improve their diving skills. During the first couple of weeks after hatching, chicks commonly hitch a ride on their parents’ backs where they can rest, keep warm and stay safe from predators. Diligent loon parents spend a lot of time protecting their chicks while also catching fish and invertebrates for them to eat, even late into the season - long after the young are capable of catching their own prey.
Communication is key
Over the years, researchers have learned a lot about how common loons communicate with each other and even with people. Loons have four types of calls: yodels, hoots, tremolos and wails. All of these vocalizations have different purposes. Yodels are unique to any given male and are specific to their territory. In fact, he’ll change his yodel if he moves to a new territory! Hoots are more subdued and are ways for loons to communicate with their young or their mate. Tremolos are alarm calls that loons make when they want to send out an alert or want to make it clear that they are on a lake. When encountering loons on the water, hearing their wavering tremolo is a clear signal you are too close. Finally, the wail is that classic, haunting “call and repeat” that mates send and receive when they are trying to figure out each other's location.
2022 shake up
’Fe’ and ‘ABJ’ returned to their territory on the refuge in spring of 2022 and were expected to kick off their record 26th consecutive year as a breeding pair. This would have added to their lifetime productivity of 32 hatched offspring and set another record for the species. However, things didn’t go as expected.
Like many bird species, pairs are more likely to break up after an unsuccessful nesting season. In the two-decade span from 1998 to 2017, they failed to produce young only twice. This was a big change for the pair that averaged 1.4 fledged chicks per year - more than double the rate of the broader breeding population on the refuge! While the pair had an amazing run, recent breeding seasons hadn’t gone as smoothly. Over the past four years, they hatched and fledged only one chick and there were suggestions of a weakening bond. While the pair had been spotted in their typical nesting territory this spring, it was discovered that a different pair was nesting here instead. ‘Fe’ was located on the pool to the north, while ‘ABJ’ was on the pool to the west. Researchers did not observe the behavior that led to the split, but it is believed that their recent failed nesting attempts, including in 2021, drove them to shake things up.
An uncertain future
While this may be a devastating break up for fans, this doesn't necessarily mean the pair has called it quits for good. There have been multiple instances of pairs on the refuge reuniting several years after a split. More to come as their stories continue to unfold.