The Lone Loon Fallacy

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And now, for another installment in our series: How The Loon Terns, an exercise in skeptical thinking using Loons as a waterbird touchstone. (In case you missed it, the previous installment was here.)

Common Knowledge: Loons are driven off lakes by boaters. The literature from the 1970s and 1980s makes it clear that there was a reduction in loon populations on lakes that were previously more isolated, and have become more accessible, and suffered greater amounts of boat traffic. Boats cause several problems for loons, including a damaging wake, and presumably it is bad if a loon is run over by a boat. Generally speaking, though, this early literature seems mainly to say that loons like the quiet and isolation and are driven away by human business. One piece of literature I read from the mid 1980s states, and I paraphrase: “increasingly, loons have gown accustom to the intrusion of boats, but shouldn’t we ask ourselves, isn’t it better to have loons that live in their natural habitat of peace and quiet?”

Challenge: There is evidence that indicates a change in the need for loons to have an out of the way and quiet habitat, and certainly this is what I see in our local loons, who are happily raising offspring among a modest number of fishing boats, the occasional skier-dragging boat, and jet ski thingies. I’m sure that these boats distract and bother the loons to some extent, but my memory of the adirondacks in the 1970s is that lakes with boats tended to not have loons. That is clearly not the case with this lake.

What I do want to point out in particular is the assertion I refer to above: That even if the loons grow accustom to boats, don’t we still prefer the old kind of loon that didn’t like boats? I understand the sentiment that author is expressing . I would love to see far more lakes in Minnesota be inaccessible by car and to have no motorized boats. At the moment there are very few, and the average Minnesotan, when you suggest this to them, stares at you blankly like they have no idea what you just said. What is the point of a lake without a road? Minnesotans are only just now beginning to realize that if you divide up every bit of land into 120 foot frontage lots on lakes, eventually there will be nothing but houses (not even small cabins) on every single lake. It is almost too late to reverse this thinking here in Minnesota.

The problem with the statement, though, is that the original plan seemed to be to link loons, as a kind of large aquatic canary, to habitat preservation. But then the loons evolved (or changed in some other way) so the disappearance of the loons from a lake was no longer the indicator of habitat destruction and human encroachment on the natural world.

In general we have to be careful what “what if” models we use, because sometimes the reality underlying the model changes (or perhaps was never what we thought it was to begin with) and we are then left not only short one rhetorical tool, but perhaps with a tool that will work against us. “Never mind what those conservationists said! They told us the loons would all die if we built too many cabins and used too many boats! But look, the loons adapted to us! So, everything will adapt to us!!”

In the next installment: Miscellaneous other stuff. Don’t miss it!

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0 thoughts on “The Lone Loon Fallacy

  1. That makes me think of Turkey Vultures. I grew up in some the older suburbs of Philadelphia in the ’50’s, and never saw a vulture until I spent summers on the Eastern Shore. I now live in the same zip code I grew up in, and I see them soaring regularly.

    I have never chanced upon one feeding, and I always wonder how these suburban vultures make a living.

  2. There is a mourning dove nest about 5 feet from me right now, with a dove relatively happily sitting on some eggs. Third cycle this year actually.

    It is in a hanging pot (the plant is long dead) on our porch (where I’m sitting typing). I can easily walk right up to within a couple of feet and look in, though the dove does watch me carefully. When I’m not looking at the dove, it doesn’t seem to worry too much about watching me.

    The first nesting cycle, the birds (pair) were skittish, and would tend to fly away if I came out onto the porch. One got more tolerant faster than the other, which was interesting to watch. I just ignore them, and now they really don’t seem to care all that much. The pot has for wires hanging it up, which I think they appreciate since it offers some additional protection from scrub jays and other potential avian harassers.

    The really odd thing is that we have cats, which we routinely let out onto the porch too. Cats kill mourning doves, though ours have demonstrated that they can’t reach the nest and their presence deters other cats from coming around (our dominant cat is a big grumpy Maine-Coon mix.)
    I wonder what the offspring’s disposition towards people (and potentially more problematically cats) is though.

    Anyway, just a random, somewhat relevant story to share.

  3. Re: vultures

    I grew up in Miami. In those days you could often see vultures hanging out in thermal updrafts around the county courthouse (insert lawyer joke here). Apparently the wind currents around the building were exactly to their liking. And with Biscayne Bay (with a few preserved natural areas) close at hand, not to mention roadkill, they had plenty of food available.

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