The common loon is referred to by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as the “spirit of the northern waters.” Here in the Adirondacks, you can find images of loons seemingly everywhere, from T-shirts to coffee mugs to throw pillows.
The birds are revered as the spirit of the wilderness. But there was a time when they were hunted.
Native Americans killed loons with bows and arrows, spears, and later rifles, according to the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at McGill University. They hunted yellow-billed and red-throated loons as well as common loons.
The loons’ skins were fashioned into medicine pouches, coats, and seat covers. Feathers were used in pillows, blankets, and beds. The beaks were used for arrowheads and awls.
European settlers also hunted loons — for its flesh, for sport, and because anglers saw the fish-eating birds as competition.
But whether boiled, broiled, or dried, loon meat does not taste great, according to historical reports. The ornithologist John Audubon called the flesh “tough, rank, and dark-colored.”
As the populations of loons and and other birds declined (or, in the case of the passenger pigeon, were driven to extinction), Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. As a result, it is illegal to kill migratory birds covered by the Act.
The Act didn’t prevent residents in Carteret County, North Carolina, from continuing to hunt the common loon, which was a tradition in the area. People ate the flesh and fashioned the leg bones into fishing lures. According to the Wilson Ornithological Society, the tradition died on May 6, 1950 with raid that led to the arrest of a hundred hunters, seventy-eight of whom were formally charged with illegally shooting loons.
In recent decades, the population of common loons has rebounded in the Adirondacks and elsewhere in the country.
“The Adirondack population is stable and has been increasing along with the rest of the northeast U.S. loon population,” according to Vincent Spagnuolo, a loon specialist with the Biodiversity Research Institute.
Nevertheless, Spagnuolo doubts that the law will be changed to allow the hunting of loons again.
In New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation regards loons as “species of special concern.” This means loons are not in so much trouble as to warrant placement on the list of endangered or threatened species, but they do “warrant attention and consideration.” Among the threats to loons are lead sinkers, fishing line, mercury pollution, and powerboats.
In the Adirondacks, the Center for Loon Conservation works to protect the iconic bird.
Photo of loon courtesy Larry Master.