A Loon Story with a Happy Ending

All our patients are special from the tiniest Song Sparrow nestling through the large species such as Bald Eagles, Trumpeter Swans and Loons. Each one receives personal care and the best we can offer, there are however species that “stick out" and garner more attention from the public. Loons, the sound of the Northwoods are one of those species.

We care for about 15 loon cases a year. Some are simple cases where after an exam and x-rays the loon can be treated and released after only a few days of care. Some are difficult and require not only the best care we can offer but surgery and after care and treatment as well. So it was that what looked like a "simple case" of a loon involved in a territorial dispute with another loon, turned into a nightmare case that would involve our veterinarian, Dr. Sarah and her fabulous team at the Antigo Veterinary Clinic as well as our REGI staff to pull off a successful surgery this week on a beautiful 18 yr. old female loon from well-known study area in Northern WI.

On June 23rd we took a call from Linda Grenzer with a report of a loon in trouble on a well-known lake. Linda instructed the homeowner to box the lethargic bird, to keep her safe until the loon researchers in the area could transport it to us at Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI) The thought at the time was that she had been involved in a territorial dispute with another loon. These battles can be very serious, however sometimes they are more skirmishes that require only a few days of goof food and R&R at REGI before they can go home again.

The loon had physical signs that she was involved in a fight including some bleeding on her belly, but there were some things that made me uneasy that there was something more going on. She acted strangely, was spastic and her vocalizations were muted as if she had something in her throat. I did not see anything there on the physical exam, so we took an x-ray. There hidden away in her digestive system were 2 large lead sinkers (wt.3-4 grams) a leader, hook and line. Without surgery to get those things out, this loon would never leave our clinic alive. Blood tests revealed that her blood lead was very high, and she was anemic.

Treatment to chelate her blood from the heavy metal, lead began immediately. Injections of Ca EDTA are not easy for the patient and are expensive for the wildlife center. We worked to stabilize her from her injuries while supporting her nutritionally and planning for surgery.

It was all hands-on deck at The Antigo Veterinary Clinic when Dr. Sarah performed the lavage surgery on the loon. We are beyond grateful that the 1.5 hr. procedure was successful. We have the lead sinkers, the degraded hook and line and leader as well as many small rocks the loon had in her digestive for ballast. Three veterinarians were involved as well as a full staff at the clinic and our REGI team as well. At the end we were all exhausted. sweaty people that were so happy to see the loon open her eyes and start looking for food.

All's well that ends well. Our special lady loon continues to have twice a day injection to chelate the built-up lead from her blood and bones even as she is eating hardily. Her voice is returning to normal. Not long ago a loon with sinkers in the digestive system had zero chance of recovery. With our great veterinary team and the new procedure, we are saving them.

Everybody can help loons not be exposed to lead sinkers. Please switch to a lead alternative sinkers and jigs and don't discard your old line and fishing lures in the water when you replace them. Loons and other wildlife WILL find them. The result is devastating for them and for those that love to hear the call of the loons in the wild on our lakes.

Thank you to the homeowner that reported, contained and protected the loon, Project Loon researchers, Evelyn Doolittle, Elaina Lomery and Tarryn Hanson, Linda Grenzer, Walter Piper and Dr. Sarah Lautzenhiser, Dr Laura Sanchez, and the great support team at the Antigo Veterinary Clinic as well as our own REGI staff and interns.

As I finished writing this piece, I received some photos from a nearby Oneida Lake. The lake has a small island and is a loon nesting area. A sign alerts people to the loon nest and yet apparently it is being used as a staging area for the release of fireworks…in the past and present. This is unacceptable. If residents of that lake are among our readers please do not allow this travesty to continue. It is disgusting that our wildlife is being compromised and killed to celebrate a July 4th holiday on our pristine lakes where loons, eagles and other wildlife call home. Enjoy fireworks if you must, in public displays that are done safely and in areas that are less likely to cause destruction of the very things that make our Northwoods so special. Loons have tiny babies right now. Young eagles are close to fledging their nest this coming week. They cannot fly to get away from the sights and sounds of explosives and often jump to their death. Water birds sustain concussions from explosives underwater. Be respectful. Honor our country by celebrating our wildlife not destroying it.