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Of Loons and Climate Change

Published on
13 February 2016

HomePage LoonWithChickI remember the first time I heard a loon. My husband, Tom, and I were camping one summer in northern Wisconsin near a small lake. That first night, we heard an eerie sound that I didn’t recognize. 

“What is that?” I whispered. “That’s a loon,” reassured Tom.

Loons called from the lake each evening, providing a memorable soundtrack for what was a very relaxing vacation. The calls we heard were a “wail,” which is the sound a loon makes in the evening when it is looking for its mate.

If you’ve never heard one, take a moment to find a sample “loon wail” on the Internet. The sound is like some ghostly wolf howling, but spookier. You can listen to a variety of loon calls by clicking here.

I was sad to learn that in just 60 years – less than a lifetime – loons may be gone from all summer lakes in the Continental United States. Changes to the climate are gradually driving loons north to Canadian lakes in the summer.

The loon is just one example of how the warming planet is affecting birds. According to a report from the National Audubon Society (, more than half of the North American bird species studied (314 out of 588) are likely to have trouble over the next 60 years. Twenty percent are at risk of extinction. Changes predicted include increased drought in some areas and flooding in others, larger populations of predators (that will adapt well to changes), and famine.

Famine becomes an issue for birds as the timing of migration, reproduction and the availability of food sources become out-of-sync with each other. In parts of Canada, some migratory birds are already having trouble because the insects they eat hatch too early in the season. By the time the birds arrive, after travelling thousands of miles, there may not be enough insects left for the hungry birds.

As the climate warms, some bird species will do well because they are able to take advantage of the changes. Other birds will adapt, perhaps by migrating earlier or moving north. But, some species will go extinct because they cannot adapt quickly enough to keep up with the rapid changes.

Historically, changes to the climate as dramatic as those happening today occurred over thousands of years. The plants and animals moved together gradually as the climate warmed or cooled. This is important to keep in mind, because species exist in communities where their lives are interconnected. 

Modern climate change is happening at a rapid pace that we measure in decades. Plus, the landscape is altered so dramatically by development that many habitat remnants occur as ecological islands in a sea of asphalt and buildings, leaving little room for plant and insect species to move. Birds may be able to fly to a better spot, but if the insects and plants they need do not exist there, they may not survive.

Each of us can do something to help:

1. Create safe places for birds in your yard and neighborhood: Use fewer pesticides, let dead trees stand, install birdbaths, provide a variety of birdseed, and convert lawns and gardens to native plants. TLC’s Conservation@Home program can help. Contact Sarah at [email protected] to learn more.

2. Take steps to reduce energy use at home and work.

3. Speak up about climate change with friends and family and on social media using #BirdsTellUs

4. Volunteer with an environmental organization like The Land Conservancy, Environmental Defenders of McHenry County or Audubon Society. Each has opportunities to take action for nature that will make a difference in our community and the world.

If enough people make different choices in their daily lives, we will slow climate change down. It’s our choice.

As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” 

Do it for the birds!

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