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Rehabilitators report ‘loon fallout’ in northern Wisconsin

Migrating loons get pulled down by weight of ice that hampers their flight ability, causing them to crash on land, nonprofit says

Staff members put a loon on a scale
Staff members help a loon after over two dozen of the birds fell from flying due to cold, turbulent spring weather. The photo caption on Raptor Education Group, Inc.’s Facebook page reads: “The lady loon is a little thin but no serious injuries are evident. A more complete exam to follow.” Photo courtesy Raptor Education Group, Inc.

Loons have been falling from the sky over Wisconsin this week, according to an avian rehabilitation organization.

Marge Gibson, founder and director of Raptor Education Group, blamed what they call a “loon fallout” on cold, turbulent spring weather. She said migrating loons that fly at high altitudes get coated in ice which hampers their flight ability.

“Once the ice accumulates on them, they’re no longer aerodynamic, and they fall,” Gibson said. “They just happen to be in the wrong place.”

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At least 25 downed loons have been rescued as of Friday.

Gibson said loons sometimes end up on the ground because they mistake wet pavement for water and try to land. But in this case, she said, other birds were found across different locations — in woods and cow pastures, or places where they wouldn’t land purposely.

A staff member cleans off a loon with a showerhead
A staff member cleans off a loon that was found in a cow pasture. Raptor Education Group, Inc.’s photo caption on Facebook reads: “Cleaning the loons feathers of cow manure is important to protect her flight feathers.” Photo courtesy Raptor Education Group, Inc.

Anna Pidgeon is a professor of forest and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“It’s distressing to think about loons being stuck on pavement or fields or just completely stranded and vulnerable. They’re way out of their element,” she said.

Pidgeon said loons are built to swim fast and pursue fish underwater, so their legs are placed far back on their bodies. They cannot walk.

And once they land on lakes, loons need big stretches of water to take flight again.

“They need a long runway. It’s like a plane can’t pop up out of the runway,” Pidgeon said.

Pidgeon said common loons winter in the Gulf of Mexico or along the Atlantic seaboards and migrate to northern Wisconsin. About 4,000 adult loons spend the breeding season in the state, according to a 2020 LoonWatch survey.

They migrate to lakes in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest by late April, according to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Most nest by late May and eggs start to hatch about one month later.

Gibson said the fallout is rare. And she said anything that challenges the loon population in Wisconsin is noteworthy because it’s declining.

A loon and its chick swim in a lake
Pat Wellenbach/AP Photo

How to help

Gibson is asking people to call a local wildlife group if they find a downed loon.

She warned the public of loons’ sharp beaks, advising against releasing loons in small ponds or bodies of water where they cannot survive.

Call the Raptor Education Group at 715-623-4015 or Loon Rescue at 715-966-5415.

Visit the Raptor Education Group, Inc. at https://www.raptoreducationgroup.org. Visit the National Loon Center here.