Loon population gets a helping hand in southern Minnesota

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loon family near collegeville
Dick Schoenberger photographed this loon family at St. John's in Collegeville, Minn., on June 3, 2014. He submitted the photo to Classical MPR's Music in Bloom photo call.
Dick Schoenberger for MPR

It may sound loony, but southern Minnesota needs a hand in providing a home for the state's official bird.

Minnesota's loon population is stable at an estimated 4,800 breeding pairs, but their numbers are weaker in southern reaches. And a study from the National Audobon Society last year suggested loons could be pushed out of Minnesota altogether by 2080 as the state's lakes warm.

Enter Biodiversity Research Institute, a Maine-based group leading a three-year effort to restore the black- and white-speckled bird in the southern part of the state. The Mankato Free Press reported nine more loon chicks will be released at Le Sueur County's Fish Lake — about 20 miles east of Mankato @mdash; by the end of fall.

Loon chicks are taken from the northern lakes where they hatched after just eight weeks -- old enough to be raised by their parents, but young enough so they don't form an attachment to their birth lake.

"The longer a young loon is with its adult, the more it picks up on the social behavior of loons," said James Paruk, a senior scientist with the institute.

It's not a novel strategy. Chick relocation has worked to extend habitats for other birds, but researchers aren't sure how it will play out for loons; they don't believe they'll fly back to their birth lakes after heading south for winter.

The group is at a midpoint of its three-year project that will transplant as many as 25 chicks to southern Minnesota, but the payoff so far is unknown. The fate of five chicks released last year is unclear; Paruk said he figures they headed to the Gulf Coast or the Mid-Atlantic and may return next year or in 2017.

If they make it back, Paruk said he believes southern Minnesota's lakes can become the loons' permanent home -- at least for the summer.

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