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Loon populations facing “death by a thousand cuts

One of Canada’s most iconic animals is facing a sharp drop in population.

Dr. Doug Tozer, Director of Waterbirds and Wetlands at Birds Canada, says common loons are giving birth to 25 to 30 per cent fewer chicks than 10 years ago.

Given the two to three decade lifespan of wild loons, Tozer says it will be a while before that makes its full impact on mating adult populations. However, he says it’s had enough of an effect that even untrained observers have started to notice.

“We’re already getting anecdotal reports of this from places like Muskoka, where people will say ‘the loons are still on our lakes, they’re still nesting here, but we don’t see them with big chicks at the end of the summer as much as we used to’,” says Tozer. “So I think we’re starting to even see reductions in the numbers of nesting pairs in a number of places.”

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According to Tozer, the exact cause for the decline is not yet known, but leading theories are that it’s a “death by a thousand cuts” from several factors. He says prior damage to lakes from acid rain, mercury contamination in waterways, and climate change are the biggest suspects.

“Common loons are a really good indicator of overall lake health,” says Tozer. “They’re at the top of the food chain. They eat almost exclusively fish, those fish eat smaller fish, and those fish eat smaller critters. Any kind of problems that there might be in the system kind of get amplified up the food chain to loons. So if loons aren’t producing chicks, it could be a signal that there’s some other problem farther down the line.”

With birth rates in decline, Tozer says it’s important to preserve the population that already exists. Having grown up in Dwight, he says there’s a few simple things people in cottage country can do to help with that.

“Watch out for loons while you’re moving around on your lake, in your boat. Make sure you don’t get too close, especially to nests. Dispose of your fishing line properly, because loons get tangled up in it. Try to use non-lead, non-toxic tackles, because if sinkers or jigs get in loons, it’s pretty much game over. They’re very susceptible to lead poisoning.”

Tozer adds that naturalizing your shoreline to give the birds a safe place to nest, and reducing your carbon footprint, help address the problem long-term. People can also sign up to survey loons at Birds Canada’s website.

If you’d like to learn more about the situation, Tozer and his work are featured in an upcoming documentary, Loons: A Cry from the Mist, which premieres Nov. 18.

**With files from Martin Halek
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