A call came in to the DNR call center on Memorial Day about a loon with something colorful wrapped around its leg. I checked with DNR loon research scientist Mike Meyer about loon banding in the area. WDNR staff, along with Dr. Walter Piper (Chapman University) and Kevin Kenow (USGS LaCrosse) have banded over 3,500 loons with colored bands in Vilas, Oneida, Iron, Forest, Lincoln and Langlade counties over the past 22 years, so there are quite a few marked birds out there.
Different bands and colors tell us information about the loon without needing to recapture it; they are often visible with the naked eye or binoculars. Because they are shiny and brightly colored, they can be mistaken for bobbers and lures. In addition, some loons are fitted with a datalogger, attached by black zip bands, which can also look like tackle or trash. These transmitters do not harm the birds, and provide valuable data about loon migration.
If you see something colorful on a loon’s leg, what should you do? Grab your camera. Try to get a digital photo and send to Michael.Meyers@wisconsin.gov (or me, Jeremy.Holtz@wisconsin.gov) with an exact location and description, and we can evaluate whether this is a situation where a loon is indeed bound up in fishing tackle and needs attention. You can also call Mike at (715) 365-8858 with a description of what you saw and where you saw it. Meyer says he is happy to try to rescue and remove fishing tackle when possible, but he doesn’t have the manpower to investigate all reports. If it looks certain that fishing tackle is the problem, and the loon is debilitated or has chicks, we may be able to capture and help it.
Loons do get tangled up in fishing tackle fairly often. Meyer reports that they average finding about six loons a year tangled in fishing line in the course of their work. Last fall, I had a report of a loon that ingested a musky fisherman’s sucker set. According to Meyer, this is common. Loon chicks hatched in the spring begin to forage for themselves in fall, and they tend to get fooled easily by minnow sets and lifelike crankbaits. The fisherman cut the line when he saw the problem, and called to report it, but then no one was able to catch the injured loon the rest of the day.
If you accidentally hook a loon, Meyer recommends you use your landing net to capture the bird, and then take it to a rehabilitator. This can be tricky, because loons are a large bird, with a sharp beak and strong legs and wings, but taking action may save the loon’s life. Loons are protected, so once you boat the loon, you have a responsibility to contact the local wildlife staff, game warden or wildlife rehabilitator. You won’t be in trouble; like you, our concern is for the well-being of the injured animal. Qualified licensed rehabilitators can successfully treat these birds. You can check the DNR website (dnr.wi.gov) for a nearby rehabilitator. Otherwise, call the DNR call center at (888) 936-7463, which is answered by DNR staff seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Finally, loons are susceptible to lead poisoning. They are fish eaters, and some fish have a lead sinker or jig in them. The lead is absorbed in the bloodstream, and the loon dies a slow death. If you see symptoms like a bird not eating/fishing, weak, very thin or gaunt, drooping wings or head, inability to fly or green watery diarrhea, lead poisoning is likely. Capture the bird and call a rehabilitator or the DNR.
If you find a dead loon, we want to collect all reported dead loons possible to perform a necropsy (a post-death exam). Call Mike Meyer, the local warden or me right away.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.