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Project works to reintroduce loons to southern Minnesota lakes

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A recent report says the impacts of climate change could make Minnesota's loon population nonexistent, but a new project is working to make sure the land of 10,000 lakes is filled with the state's bird for years to come.

Today, loons are found on lakes throughout central and northeastern Minnesota, but scientists are working to reintroduce them to southern Minnesota lakes, where they once nested.

As part of the largest conservation study ever done on the common loon, the Biodiversity Research Institute, working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), has piloted a program called Restore the Call – Minnesota. The study takes loon chicks from northern Minnesota lakes and relocates them to breeding grounds in southern Minnesota, to see if they return there on their own in the future.

“There’s been some discussion whether it’s even possible to get loons back to the areas where they were previously,” Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) Senior Scientist Jim Paruk, Ph.D., told the Faribault Daily News. “There are lots of unknowns and it’s definitely real exciting to be part of something so groundbreaking.”

This year, researchers took five chicks (ranging in age from 6 to 10 weeks – a natural time to separate from their parents, scientists say) from a lake near Grand Rapids and kept them in pens on Fish Lake in Waterville, near Faribault (photo at left). Researchers put a band on the loons so they can track them, and then released them at different times – only one remains in captivity, the Faribault Daily News says.

“The idea is that the loons, at some point, will come back to Fish Lake and will recognize it as the lake that they migrated from and a suitable lake for breeding in the future,” Paruk told the newspaper.

In the early 1900s, loons nested as far south as Illinois and Pennsylvania, CBS News says, but their range has steadily decreased over the years. Although Minnesota's loon population is currently stable, the Audubon Society's climate change impact report says as the atmosphere warms over the next several decades it will push the loons out of Minnesota completely.

Minnesota's loons leave the state in the fall to travel to their winter homes along the southern Atlantic coast and along the Gulf of Mexico, the DNR says. They return to northern lakes in April or May to breed and spend the summer.

The loons in the Fish Lake experiment likely won't return until the summer of 2016 because the birds typically spend their second summer at the Gulf of Mexico, the Faribault Daily News notes.

Researchers plan to return to Fish Lake next year and hopefully include more birds in the study. Other states, including Wyoming and Massachusetts, are being considered for the project in the future.

The Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center tracks loons who leave Minnesota in the fall. You can follow them here.

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