How the Adirondacks' favorite fowl went from vilified to glorified
by Elizabeth Folwell
BY MID-OCTOBER adult common loons are gone from the lakes, southbound to open water. But their young of last spring—homely as cormorants—linger, perfecting their wing skills and gaining strength for the migration. Parents and offspring are unlikely to meet ever again, one of the abiding mysteries of these birds. The few juveniles who survive from speckled egg to downy chick to gray-feathered swimmer are left to instinct and chance to find the saltwater home that will be theirs for three years, until they return to the Adirondacks in the black-and-white plumage we love so well.
There is another mystery surrounding these animals: Why do we care so deeply about a creature that can barely walk and has no use at all for our world? This magnificent obsession is new to us, a product of the late twentieth century, when the birds became synonymous with wilderness. Loon imagery is rampant today, a cliché embroidered on golf shirts and hand towels, printed on doormats and gimme caps, embossed on brass plates, carved in stone and wood and cast in plastic. The streamlined torpedo shape and high-contrast paint job are so prevalent in decor and design that an outside observer—say, a desert dweller—would assume loons to be the requisite monogram for a happy home and a stylish wardrobe.
Loons in the twenty-first century have organizations dedicated to their survival, such as the North American Loon Fund and the Adirondack Cooperative Loon Project. Other beautiful birds, like kingfishers or herons or cedar waxwings, don’t earn such partisan support; groups like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited have motives other than pure preservation for the game birds. Hunters love them, yes, and wish to conserve vital habitat, but the drive to increase populations is inseparable from the love of the chase. You can’t shoot a loon today, nor would you want to eat one. But that wasn’t always the case. These deep divers were targets, not of affection or respect, but prey sighted down the barrel of a nineteenth-century rifle.
You can hear the trigger click and smell the gunpowder in numerous accounts. “Loon-Shooting in a Thunderstorm,” a stirring chapter in William H. H. Murray’s 1869 best-seller Adventures in the Wilderness, describes in detail a guide and sport firing merrily away at a frantic, evasive bird. Murray marvels, “Loons are the shyest and most expert swimmers of all waterfowl. Twenty rods is as near as you can get to them. When under fire, they sink themselves into the water so that nothing but the feathers along their backs and heads are in sight, and so quick are they that they dive at the flash, getting under in time to escape the bullet.” Murray unloads so much lead that his gun overheats. The bird, stripped of back feathers from bullets, survives.
In an 1880 Vassar College alumni magazine, an anonymous young woman describes a loon hunt in Blue Mountain Lake. A professor staying at a hotel had challenged a local guide to bag him a bird to use as a taxidermy specimen, promising five dollars for the trouble, as much as two days’ pay. A brace of boats race across the water, one with the hunter, the other trying to corral the bird. As the clouds lower and wind builds to a gale, the men row in crazy circles, firing repeatedly. At last all is quiet, so the author heads to the scene, observing, “When we came up to them, they had landed, and pulled the boat partially onto a rock. Behold! Our young man had not shot a loon, or a girl, or even Blue Mountain, but the boat.”
Gavia immer 2, Homo sapiens 0.
Many shooters thought they were correcting a new, terrible imbalance in nature. Trout were declining at an alarming rate in the Adirondacks as the 1800s came to a close, and publications such as the state fisheries and game reports kept that anti-loon sentiment alive in articles like “Winged Enemies of Fish” (1898). The northern diver, with its spear beak, “savage disposition” and arrow swiftness under water, was a prime suspect in the disappearance of speckled trout.
Killing the birds was entirely justified from a gamekeeper’s perspective: “We do not see and therefore do not know the full extent of the depredations continually going on around us, but when we stop to realize the fruits of our labor and patient expectation, we are astonished by the scarcity of fish and often inclined to place the blame where it does not belong. Nature’s checks upon overproduction are sometimes more effective than man’s most ingenious devices for the legitimate capture or legal destruction of fish, but at the present state of the fishing waters in New York it is safe to say that we can get along without nature’s checks.” It was also safe to say that blasting a loon or two was regarded as a positive act, especially by hatchery managers and wildlife experts such as the author of “Winged Enemies.” Though many states discussed placing a bounty on loons, it was never legislated in New York. There was no need to spend tax dollars encouraging something that was so popular on its own.
Glancing at old photographs showing gentlemen posing by clotheslines laden with fish ranging in size from trophies to tie tacks might make a modern observer think otherwise about the cause of the anglers’ woes. As early as 1919 ornithologist A.C. Bent is catching on: “Even the lively trout, noted for its quickness of movement, cannot escape the loon, and large numbers of these desirable fish are destroyed to satisfy its hunger. Some sportsmen have advocated placing a bounty on loons on this account, but as both loon and trout have always flourished together until the advent of sportsmen, it is hardly fair to blame this bird, which is such an attractive feature of the wilds, for the scarcity of the trout. We are too apt to condemn a bird for what little damage it does in this right, without giving it credit for the right to live.”
A few outdoorsmen began to notice a change in northern waters. “Loons are not as plentiful in the Adirondacks as they were five years ago,” writes Field and Stream’s Adirondack columnist, Harry V. Radford, in 1901. “I do not hear their strange wild call in the silence of the night, or see them sitting motionless in the water or diving elusively at the flash of the rifle, as often as I used to, and I am sorry for it.” He straddles a curious fence, admitting the birds’ scarcity while indicating the reason for it. The $64,000 question: What does Radford miss more? The call of the wild or the crack of a rifle?
“It was asserted by the best authorities that this bird can evade a gunshot by diving at the flash, and I have no doubt that this is true when black powder is used, but when a modern smokeless rifle is discharged at a loon, he is utterly unable to dodge the shot, even when intently eying the gunner all the time,” writes Elon Howard Eton in a New York State Museum bulletin published in 1910. In a scientific study the species is still noted mainly as an effective predator of fish. But this interpretation had recently come under fire.
Attitudes toward wilderness were changing across the country, and grudging admiration of birds and animals for their own sake became more common in the press. Bird-watching, as opposed to bird-shooting, was gaining popularity as a hobby. Conservation efforts, some launched by the brand-new Audubon Society, brought the carnage of the feather trade to widespread attention. Birds of America, first printed in 1917, admits, “The cry of the loon has been variously described as mournful, mirthful, sinister, defiant, uncanny, demoniacal and so on. At any rate, it is undeniably distinctive and characteristic and it is almost certain to challenge the dullest ear and the most inert imagination, while in those who instinctively know the voices of nature, especially when she is frankly and unrestrainedly natural, it produces a thrill and elicits a response which only the elect understand.”
The elect—just who would they be? Not the guides who earned their pay tending to city men playing in the woods. That kind of assertion about a chosen group more inclined to observe nature as an adoring bystander points to growing class differences in appreciating the wild. The educated—with means, leisure and a lakefront camp—were likely to see loons as important symbols of the Adirondacks and the great untamed reaches of North America. As game laws were codified to protect stocks of deer and fish, the idea of preserving nature grew into a national consciousness. One concrete proof of this is the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which banned possessing or killing hundreds of bird species as well as collecting their eggs, and transporting and trading skins and other parts. The law destroyed forever the commerce in wild feathers, so sought after for ladies’ hats. The same people who could afford fancy millinery could also afford to save animals whose commercial worth was gone.
The common loon, though rarely used in high fashion, benefited from the treaty. No longer could the great northern diver be regarded—legally—as a hunter’s prize.
The broad reach of federal law enforcement was absent from North Country waters for decades following the bird protection act. Prohibition gave government agents plenty to do here anyway. The loon quietly slipped back into the shadows of its favorite bays, raising generations of chicks as the grand hotels slowly faded away.
YOU CAN’T MISS SOMETHING until it’s gone. Or going. Loons began to vanish from former haunts, victims of so many human actions. The birds died from complications of acid rain, from ingesting lead shot and sinkers, from eating mercury-laden fish, from the subtle effects of shoreline development. Nests and eggs were destroyed by high water, sometimes the direct result of motorboat wakes. The birds’ taste for lakefront is often similar to ours—a gentle slope to the water, not too many rocks, solitude. Vacation homes sent nesting pairs deeper into real wilderness, farther from sight. By the 1980s loon populations were watched with the same close scrutiny as the stock market. As the animals themselves disappeared, their value as symbols rose, just as interest in moose, wolf and other “charismatic megafauna” grew.
How we love to pretend we tread lightly on the land. How we yearn for simpler days and the perfection of untouched vistas. Loon lust is for a glance at a time when human activity was minimal, when creatures of the wind, water and woods lived supremely oblivious, above our love and beyond our care.
Or we cherish them because they’re beautiful, black, white and red—that uncanny red eye set in shining jet. Or it’s the voice, unmistakable and indecipherable, despite efforts to decode it. Or it’s a guilty love, because our kind nearly destroyed them, and what we want is atonement.
Or it’s all of these and how one bird can evoke an entire place, a landscape that is worth calling upon anywhere, anytime. Like many who regard the Adirondacks as home, the birds are really seasonal residents. They simply can’t stay when winter locks the lakes.
Loons make other sounds, not just lunatic laughter and throaty tremolos. The rhythmic beat of wings—how fitting that the long feathers are called remiges, from the Latin word for oars—can be heard on a still, late-fall day, when the birds’ voices are mute as they leave us behind. They row through the air, just as they fly under the water. And when the ice is water, months from now, they will return, faithful to their own Adirondacks.