Early this morning I was reading in the backyard when I heard something I’ve never heard in twenty years of living in this place; the distinct call of a loon as it flew over the house. In my lifetime loons have always been rare, and usually you’d find them up on the relatively quiet northern lakes. The first time I heard a loon was on First Connecticut Lake up in Pittsburgh, New Hampshire. I was 23 at the time; far too old to be hearing a loon for the first time. Interestingly enough that was the same weekend I first saw a moose in the wild (thanks Pittsburgh). But it remained a rare experience if you weren’t up in the Lakes Region or north.
Loons, like hawks and eagles, are the canaries in the coal mine for our ecosystem. When DDT and other pesticides worked their way up through the food chain it killed more than just bugs. One research article talked about massive loon die-offs in the mid-1960’s related to pesticides and human interference on Lake Michigan. This was repeated all around the country as attempts to knock out the mosquito population and pests that eat food crops created unintended consequences. With the ban of the worst of these pesticides and intelligent management of the rest, wildlife started making a comeback. As the world struggles with the questions of climate change and plastic in the environment, perhaps looking back on the 40-year rebound of the loon population would be a good example of what positive, long-term change looks like.
The loons have made a comeback. The population has tripled in the last 40 years from about 100 in 1974 to over 300 last year. As the population increases nesting pairs move into new lakes and ponds in Southern New Hampshire, making the once rare sound of a loon song increasingly common again. That loon flying over my house could have been heading to any of the half dozen large lakes nearby, or perhaps one of the many smaller ponds and that flow into the Spicket River. But wherever it was heading, it was a signal that things are slowly improving for the loons, and for the rest of us as well.