Massachusetts was once full of loons. Can conservationists bring them back?

A Maine-based conservation group seeks to rebuild the once-thriving common loon population of Massachusetts.

Pat Wellenbach/AP/File
In this July 2007 file photo, a loon with a chick on its back makes its way across Pierce Pond near North New Portland, Maine.

With its piercing red eyes and its mournful wail, the common loon looks and sounds as though it had escaped from a gothic horror novel. In a place where it once abounded, conservation biologists are hoping to bring the noteworthy bird back.

Restore the Call, an initiative of the Biodiversity Research Institute in Portland, Maine, seeks to reestablish common loon populations in the Northeast. In hopes of restoring the loon population of Massachusetts, conservationists will relocate 10 chicks to the state this summer.

“All we need to do is establish one pair,” David Evers, executive director of the institute, told the Associated Press. “Once that one pair is established and once that pair produces young, and those young come back, and they start to establish territories, then you’ve got some brooding that can start from that little seed.”

Found in the northern US and Canada, the common loon is a lake-dwelling member of the loon family. Adults form monogamous nesting bonds that can last for five years, communicating with their partners with a haunting, wolflike call.

The bird, which was once abundant in the state, was virtually gone from Massachusetts by the end of the 19th century. Hunting, habitat loss, and pollution had contributed to its decline. It returned in the 1970s, but in small numbers: currently there are estimated to be just 45 pairs in the state.

Populations have declined elsewhere in the states, too. The common loon is a threatened species in New Hampshire, and it has disappeared from Oregon entirely. Latest estimates put the entire US population at just 14,000 pairs. The loon exists more successfully in Canada because of its status as national bird, but there, too, it is threatened by pollution.

Because loons take several years to reach maturity, it will be a slow rebound back to secure population numbers. Researchers hope that relocation will help the process along.

Maine is home to some 2,000 common loon pairs – the most of any state in the eastern US. New York comes in second, with about 1,000 pairs. Most relocation efforts, including Restore the Call, take in birds from these two states.

This summer, 10 chicks will be moved to an area south of Boston in hopes that they will nest there upon maturation. Maine Audubon, which has collaborated with similar initiatives, will also assist in the relocation. The effort is funded in part by a $6.5-million grant from the Ricketts Conservation Foundation.

“Loons are near and dear to people’s hearts in Maine,” Susan Gallo, wildlife biologist for Maine Audubon, told the AP. “Anything we can do to get the loons to nest in new places, I think, is a benefit to loons.”

This story includes material from the Associated Press.

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