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Year-end Release: Common Loon

We were fortunate to end the year on a high note. Last week we rescued and released a Common Loon, one of the most difficult sea birds to rehabilitate.

Common Loons (Gavia immer) are migratory birds in Rhode Island. This one was found near Misquamicut beach by one of the Environmental Police Officers who work for the Department of Environmental Management in RI. The Loon was unable to swim and transferred to us for care.

On intake exam, she was found to be in good weight. She had no obvious injuries other than she was unusually quiet and inactive.

We placed her in what we call a "sea bird net" so she could rest overnight. Loons are adapted for life in the water and cannot bear weight on their legs. The net suspends the bird's body weight and keeps it off the breast bone, or keel. Otherwise, Loons develop sores on their keels. This is just one of the many challenges associated with rehabbing this species. In the first video, the loon is resting quietly in the net.

The next day, we gave her a chance to swim in a large tub of water and offered her live fish hoping she would eat on her own.

As you can see in the second video, the loon showed interest but was not using her legs well. We treated her with an anti inflammatory medication for a potential back injury, and started her on assisted feedings (through a tube placed into her esophagus) with a blend of sea bird diet, salmon oil, and fresh fish.

Feathers are another potential problem. If these are damaged or the loon is too weak to preen them, they no longer keep the bird dry. It would be like swimming in cold water with holes in your wetsuit. Loons that lose their waterproofing become hypothermic and die.

Another challenge with these birds is they are dangerous. They can poke and injure an eye. We are careful to wear protective gear as in this photo.

On the third day, the loon was brighter and able to use her legs more normally. We continued to provide supportive care with swims in the tub and tube feedings.

I also looked up her band numbers - the USFWS maintains an online database for banded birds. She was born in 2014, or earlier. She was tagged on 7/19/17 in New Hampshire. ​

​​The next day, the loon was again improved, as you can see in this video, although still uninterested in eating fish.

At this point, everyone involved in her case agreed it was best to release her as soon as possible. Feathers and keel wounds aside, the stress of captivity can be too much for a loon.

Finally, here is a video of her release.

You can see that she needed a bit of help from me at first - thanks to a big wave - but she recovered quickly and swam steadily away from us.

It felt great to see her go.

For more about loons, check out this link on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.

Marissa Sprouls

Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator

Wildlife Clinic of RI Volunteer

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