Why did a loon stab a bald eagle through the heart?

api.nationalgeographic.com

By Jason Bittel 7-9 minutes

PUBLISHED May 27, 2020

Though common loons may look harmless, the territorial birds will fiercely attack any interlopers to their freshwater habitat.Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image Collection

In July 2019 a game warden in Bridgton, Maine, got an unusual call: A bald eagle was floating lifeless in a lake. At the time, biologists suspected the animal might have been shot or poisoned by lead fishing tackle—all too common causes of death for wild birds.

Now, tests have revealed the bird’s bizarre demise: A stab wound directly to the heart. The murder weapon? The dagger-like beak of a common loon. (See a photo of the dead eagle.)

It’s the first time a loon killing an eagle has ever been documented, says Danielle D’Auria, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

According to D’Auria, a dead loon chick was found nearby, suggesting a defensive loon parent gored the eagle as it attacked the loon’s nest. This phenomenon is on the rise in New England, as bald eagles continue to bounce back from near extinction in the 1970s, she says. (Learn how a national symbol bounced back.)

Loons and eagles are also top predators in Highland Lake, competing for valuable territory.

While loons appear serene and peaceful, the waterbirds can be savage, attacking everything from Canada geese to redhead ducks to, most often, other loons.

“It’s been going on for millennia,” says John Cooley, senior biologist with The Loon Preservation Committee in New Hampshire. “It’s survival of the fittest happening on our lakes.”

The catch is that until very recently there probably just weren’t enough bald eagles left for scientists to witness such battles. Since being removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007, the U.S. symbol now numbers in the hundreds of thousandsnationwide; there are more than 700 nesting pairs in Maine.

The incident shows how much we have to learn about the natural behaviors of formerly endangered species, experts say.

Thanks to conservation efforts, hundreds of thousands of bald eagles now soar through U.S. skies.Photograph by George Grall, Nat Geo Image Collection

Violence of the loons

Rather than duke it out at the surface, D’Auria says a loon will dive underwater and then rocket out “like a torpedo” to stab its opponent, which is usually a rival loon.

“It’s a common part of their contesting territories with each other,” she says. ”Sometimes the injured loon can recover from it, and occasionally they don’t.”

In fact, Cooley says he’s seen a loon chest bone riddled with holes. “Over half of the loon mortalities that we examine show healed puncture wounds like this eagle sustained,” he says. (Read about a bald eagle rescued on the Fourth of July.)

Loons can also be extremely long-lived, with one banded bird in New Hampshire defending the same territory for at least 26 years.

For this reason, “they’re invested in their lake. It’s their little kingdom,” says Cooley.

A bird-eat-bird world

At over 10 pounds, adult loons are generally too large for a bald eagle to kill and wing back to its nest.

However, loon chicks are perfect prey for bald eagles, and scientists are only recently beginning to document how the return of eagles might be affecting loon populations in New England.

One study led by Cooley found that loon nests seemed to fail more often when they were located near bald eagles.

Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Eric Hanson, a loon biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

“There’s a balance,” he says, by email. “Eagles need to eat, and loons will defend their chicks as best they can.”

Bald Eagles’ Food Fight Captured In Slow-Motion

The good news is Vermont’s loon populations have been increasing or remained steady for the last 20 years. Loons are also doing well in Maine, home to about 70 percent of the population in the U.S. Northeast, says D’Auria.

However, the species is listed as threatened in New Hampshire and of special concern in Massachusetts,due to threats such as shoreline development, fishing tackle, and climate change.

Natural problems

So while neither loon nor bald eagles seem to be in danger of driving the other to extinction, it does seem as if the two species are recalibrating back to how things used to be, Cooley says.

There are plenty of other examples: When conservation efforts enabled gray seals to return to their native territory in Cape Cod, great white sharks followed closely behind. And in the mid-90s, when the National Park Service reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone, it set off a cascade of ecosystem changes for everything from elk and coyotes to aspen and willow trees—changes scientists continue to puzzle over. (Read more about the impact predators make in Yellowstone National Park.)

It’s just that this time, the loon killed a bird that most Americans feel strongly about protecting.

But Cooley says this event, sad though it was for the eagle, is the goal of species recovery.

“We want natural problems like this to replace the human-caused problems, like lead fishing tackle as a source of mortality,” he says.

“You know, we’re living for the day when eagles are the worst thing that loons have to deal with.”

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Coronavirus ship may sail live sheep into northern summer, despite laws, says Minister David Littleproud

amp.abc.net.au

By national rural reporter Kath Sullivan. 5-6 minutes

An exemption to live export laws intended to improve animal welfare could be granted before the laws come into effect, allowing more than 50,000 Australian sheep to sail to the Middle East during the northern summer.

Key points:

  • About 56,000 sheep are ready to be loaded on a ship with six crew infected by COVID-19.
  • The ship won’t be cleaned or loaded in time to sail before exports to the Middle East stop on June 1 to protect animals from heat stress.
  • The Agriculture Minister says an independent regulator could allow the shipment to go ahead.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has told the ABC the Al Kuwait, docked at Fremantle with at least six crew infected with COVID-19, won’t be cleaned or loaded in time to sail by June 1, when the three-and-a-half-month ban on sheep exports comes into effect.

“It will miss the deadline of 1 June for the moratorium on the northern summer exports, but there’s an exemption in the legislation for the independent regulator to grant approval for that ship to sail after 1 June, particularly in light of these circumstances,” Mr Littleproud said.

“But that would be at the discretion of the independent regulator, not me.”

In March, the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environmentannounced a ban on live sheep exports to the Middle East from June 1 to September 14, due to the increased risk of heat stress.

“The changes will see improved animal welfare with a focus on conditions to manage the risk of heat stress during the northern hemisphere summer,” the department said at the time.

About 56,000 sheep are ready for loading on the Al Kuwait.

The Al Kuwait was expected to export 56,000 Australian sheep to the Middle East before a ban on sailing comes into effect on June 1.(Supplied: Rural Export and Trading, WA)

Mr Littleproud said they were in good health and distanced himself from a potential exemption, saying the independent regulator would need to make a quick decision about allowing the exports to take place.

“We don’t want to see this go too deep into June, but there’s a decision for the independent regulator,” Mr Littleproud said.

“I won’t be making a recommendation or making any of my personal views known to the independent regulator — that would be inappropriate,” he said.

“It is up to them to make their determination, that’s what the Australian public would expect. They’d expect that the live sheep that go into the Middle East do that in a safe way.”

‘Difficult to return sheep to paddocks’

Mr Littleproud said there were now “limited options” for dealing with the sheep.

“Those sheep have passed through biosecurity and it would be difficult for them to enter back into paddocks around Western Australia,” he said.

“The boat needs a deep clean and we have to work through the welfare of the crew and understand that and work with the company to see if other crew can take over.

“If that’s the case, that’ll evolve over the coming days.”

Mr Littleproud estimated a shipment of live sheep could be worth up to $12 million.

The formal ban on live sheep exports followed an industry-led moratorium in 2019 after a public campaign to end the tradey.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud announced sweeping changes to the live export sector following a review by the Department of Agriculture.(ABC News: Sean Davey)

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which led calls to ban live exports, said alternative markets for the sheep should be found after slaughter at West Australian abattoirs.

“Under no circumstances should exemptions from regulations prohibiting the export of sheep between 1 June and 14 September be granted to accommodate this consignment,” said the RSPCA in a statement.

“This would subject the sheep to unacceptable levels of heat stress and [possibly] death due to extreme heat and humidity in Middle Eastern waters at this time of year.”

Sheep ‘well cared for’

State-based lobby group WA Farmers said there was no cause for animal welfare concerns.

“The stock due for departure are being well cared for,” WA Farmers spokesman David Slade said.

“They have access to ample feed and water, with the livestock being held in the usual feedlots. They are regularly monitored by livestock personnel including vets and stock handlers.”

The Al Kuwait’s owners, Rural Export and Trading, WA issued a statement saying it would work closely with WA health authorities following the detection of COVID-19 on the vessel, but made no mention of the livestock.

Earlier this month it issued a statement that said it was disappointed by the Government’s new regulations prohibiting shipments of live sheep to the Middle East over the northern summer.

“Animal welfare is part of good business and has always been a company focus with significant investments in the vessel fleet, feedlot infrastructure and abattoirs which are world class,” it said at the time.

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