© Michael Quinton/Minden Pictures
A wailing, sea-bound loon means that a storm is brewing, while a loon returning to shore signals clear skies—or so the folklore goes. Today, there are better ways to predict the weather. But is it possible that the red-throated loon could still tell us something about a changing climate?
Researchers think so. A 40-year-long study of Alaskan red-throated loons has linked global warming to a 50 percent population decline. Smallest and lightest of the loons, the red-throated prefers to nest and raise its clutch of one to two chicks in Arctic ponds. While they face less competition with larger loons in these shallow waters, the red-throated loon’s wetlands habitat is vanishing.
In the summer, the ice-jammed rivers that create delta lakes and ponds are thawing too quickly, leaving behind fewer of the waters that red-throated loons depend on for survival. The hotter temperatures also dry out the places where loons build their nests and make the eggs and chicks easy prey for gulls and foxes.
In winter, this migratory bird takes up residence along both U.S. coasts, where other hazards await. The fish-eating loons often plunge headfirst into fishing nets, where they become entangled and drown.
What will be the future of this fascinating fowl? Researchers say it’s hard to tell—but if temperatures in the Arctic keep rising and greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, the forecast doesn’t look good.