Wild city // Kayaking the lakes with loons

When I look at water, it does my soul good. This spring I bought a kayak so I could actually get myself on the water. Every time I’ve kayaked our Minneapolis lakes I’ve seen loons.

Their presence, for a northern Minnesota person like me, makes the city infinitely more livable. I marvel that loons are able to cope with city stresses: noise from jets, cars, boats, interference from people, and, when on the wing, obstacles like tall buildings and wires.

At one time it was thought that loons mated for life, but researchers have found they are loyal, instead, to a particular lake. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the most reliable place to see loons here is Lake Calhoun, so I was delighted to learn that early settlers called it, instead, Loon Lake.

I had been thinking it was amazing that loons were able to insert themselves into our urban scene, when, of course, they were here long before people were, and are instead waiting us out.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico cast a shadow over summer this year. Ominous, it was there in the newspaper, to be dealt with every morning. I thought maybe a drastic turning point had come. The carelessness and arrogance that led to the spill, and the destruction from it, would, at last, convince us all to treat the planet more tenderly. We would change the way we live. But the moment passed.

I am old enough not to be surprised. We have long followed a pattern in our response to oil spills. The sequence goes: 1) It is not so bad; 2) Oh, it is bad; 3) We will use technology to fix it; 4) I can’t see harms anymore, so I believe there were none, and are none. Wishful thinking helps us move on.

Short-term, I am worried about our birds, especially the loons. About two thirds of them over-winter in the Gulf, while the rest stay along the Atlantic coast. The young ones migrate south, then stay put for two or more years, until they are old enough to mate and reproduce. Then they fly north, back to their nestling lake, or one nearby. The remaining oil in the Gulf might be hardest on these immature birds, given the time they will spend there, though no one knows if they will be hurt or not.

The common loon, Gavia immer, is a large bird, up to 36 inches long from beak to tail, and weighing in at around 10 pounds. These numbers hardly begin to describe it, or what it does for us. Loons are black and white beauties, and we associate them with our northern lakes, and with summer itself.

I imagine we are unconsciously drawn to the loon’s primitive qualities. They are wildness incarnate. They have survived in their present form unusually long, a million years. Their eerie calls echo back in time, bridging eons.

My Peterson field guide describes how they sound: “In summer, falsetto wails, weird yodeling, maniacal quavering laughter; at night, a tremulous ha-oo-oo.”

Some 12,000 loons live in Minnesota, more than in any state other than Alaska. Wisconsin has only around 3,400. Each time I saw a loon this summer, I wondered if it would be headed to the Gulf soon, and if so, what its fate would be. You subtract the loons from Minnesota, and what have you got left?

I don’t know if birds grieve or not. It seems unlikely, but an experience I had this week makes me wonder. One morning, I noticed there was a dead bird under our apple tree. I went inside, not wanting to deal with it. I knew I’d have to go out eventually and pick it up so our dog wouldn’t get it. I wasn’t sure what kind of bird it was; inert, it looked so plain and small.

Later, I stepped out on the patio, and saw a male cardinal perched on a flowerpot next to the carcass. Due to molting, he’d lost his crest, and looked forlorn. Even though I was just 10 feet from him, he held his ground.

He had something in his beak, maybe a small grasshopper, and he was making a soft “chee, chee, chee” sound, over and over. I realized the dead bird was a female cardinal. He appeared to be distressed, as he tried to coax his mate to respond. If I had to put an emotion to his behavior, I’d say he looked confused, pleading.

I retreated and watched him awhile, and then stepped outside again. He flew up onto a branch just above her, then to a tree in the backyard, then away.

Later, I heard him singing.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.