An Innovative Effort to Return Loons to Massachusetts Hits a Major Milestone

New recovery techniques have helped the iconic waterbirds nest in the state's glacial lakes for the first time in more than a century.

On a Friday in October, an eight-week-old Common Loon glides back and forth, ready for lunch. When a researcher pours wriggling fish through a chute into its enclosure, she dives and nabs one after another, barely surfacing. In a pen nearby, a second bird waits a turn.

The youngsters look right at home, but they’ve traveled a long way. Born in Maine, they were brought to Massachusetts weeks after hatching—the latest recruits in an effort by the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) to return this species to its historic range.

Loons were once an iconic presence in the state’s glacial lakes. “They were a natural nester here,” says Andrew Vitz, state ornithologist at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. In 1854’s Walden, Henry David Thoreau recounts playing hide-and-seek with the bird—its “demoniac laughter” gives away its position. But a few decades later, due to deforestation, pollution, and human persecution, loons were gone from the state.

In the past century, conditions steadily improved, thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other protections, as well as the creation of new reservoirs, which provide clear water and safe on-shore nesting sites. “In a lot of ways it’s a better area for loons than it was historically,” says Vitz. But they have been slow to return. To hasten the process, since 2015 BRI has translocated 36 chicks from Maine and New York to Massachusetts—first using private funds, and now with $2.5 million from a recent oil spill settlement.

Loons are rarely raised in captivity, so the researchers tested new strategies. The prey sent splashing from the chutes spurs the birds to hunt. And canvas around the pens keeps them from getting antsy, says BRI executive director David Evers.

Only recently did BRI see fruits of this labor. After a first summer on a lake, loons typically head to sea for two years. Then they fly inland to stake out territory where, around their sixth year, they mate. So far nine loons have come back to the area—in keeping with the species’ mortality at sea. The hope is that when the birds start nesting, they’ll do so on Massachusetts lakes. This spring a male loon brought from New York in 2015 met a female, and in June, the pair hatched a bonafide hometown chick—the first known in the southern part of the state in more than a century.

“That was the confirmation everybody was looking for,” says Vitz. Soon the team will turn to western Massachusetts, which is gleaming with loon-ready lakes.

If the technique continues to be effective, the state’s loons will join a number of other successfully translocated bird populations, including  Atlantic Puffins in Maine and Trumpeter Swans in the upper Midwest. That fall Friday, the year’s last two transplants were almost ready to be released. A few summers from now, everyone hopes they’ll show up somewhere nearby — and then keep coming back, year after year. “They’re real homebodies after they set up their initial territory,” says Evers. And now, hopefully, home is here. 

This story originally ran in the Winter 2020 issue as “Welcome Home, Loons.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today