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Counting what is truly wild

The loons know, not only when, which lake they will return to.

Common loons
Common loons

What if in our world of growing international finance, global corporations, more and more profit for the less and less, what if all of our bankers, accountants, statisticians, efficiency engineers, those who are never responsible for cutting out the poor or destroying the environment, or even the poetic, what if they were reassigned to count what is truly wild.

The state of Minnesota is not completely shameful, it does count the state’s loons. Though some technician has probably advised it would not be necessary to spend money for this kind of activity, so the state of Minnesota asks its citizens throughout the state — though a person employed by the state does compile the data collected for this endeavor — to donate their time, one day in the month of May, to try to count all the state’s loons.

Usually each lake is occupied by a pair of loons who are mated for life. Each year they give birth and raise two hatchlings. Generally. This year on the lake my cabin is on, near Isabella, Minnesota, I have observed a group of five, possibly a family.

The count, as accurate as it is, is all we know of the loon population in the state of Minnesota, as iconic as the loon is in that state. The loons know. The loons know, not only when, which lake they will return to. Then on the day of ice-out from that lake, they will call, in their reedy, Cajun drawl inspired from centuries of winters in Louisiana, call across the lake announcing that they have returned. The day of ice-out can vary from year to year, from lake to lake, from other variables. Thus the day of the count must be properly assigned. The loons know. The loons know how to choose their lake by an ancient system more complex than any online registration designed by modern technocrats. The lake must be long enough for their long and awkward takeoff as loons have solid bones unlike mallards, better to dive to the deep bottoms of lakes than to fly.

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Yet somehow they arrive at a lake or area of a large lake, and only that pair arrive at that lake or area of lake, always at the time of ice-out, usually in northern Minnesota about April 25 though that date can be even a month later. Somehow they know where and when to show. No missed connections. No territorial feuds. No apparent discussion. All preregistration based on a prehistoric connection in the relatively small mind (as measured by science) of one of the oldest birds in the world. A system so remarkable even statisticians, analysts, computer programmers cannot fathom. This is wild. This is the wild.

James Johnson
James Johnson
If Minnesota has 10,000 lakes and thus each spring, with the necessity for length of lake balanced out by the enhanced capacity of the larger lakes, possibly the state could support 20,000 loons. Canada, where the occupation of loon pairs occurs just as smoothly though slightly later, could have an equivalent of 100,000 lakes and so, if you do the math, could theoretically support 200,000 loons. In fact, Canada even calls its dollar coin a loony because it bears the image of a loon. The two-dollar coin is named a toony, suggesting the life-long pairing of the loons. We could do worse than listen to the loons.

In 1990 the count in Minnesota was, however, 12,000 loons. Acid rain and acid snow melt have increased the mercury content in Minnesota lakes, diminishing the numbers of invertebrates, fish and thus the loons that depend on them. Another reason to count.

Because what we do know about statisticians, market analysts, political pundits is, they are often wrong. Even scientists are not exempt from bias based on the more pressing needs of business and politics. Consider pharmaceutical researchers and climate change deniers as examples. Or trials without witnesses. Then add in technical procedure and human errors.

Often our experts are watching the wrong data. Counting costs instead of loons.

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It should be obvious that the count of all animals — red fox, pine marten, river otter, black bear, moose and white-tailed deer, to name only a few — should be included. The birds, the trees too should be counted by people so that they know they are not just names listed on a page in a textbook and easily dismissed. I have counted my trees. I have 12 northern white cedars, nine by the lake and three on the slope. I have 72 white pines and 69 red pines, all over 100 feet tall. I haven’t counted the pines in my third of an acre across the road because the property lines are unmarked. I would guess there are 30 more tall pines.

The count is not only the numbers, the numbers sent to those who want the degrees of facts, it is how we begin to see.

Frozen Lake In April
Late ice turns white, gray, and black  
waiting for the red eyes of the loons  
to come back.

James Johnson is a former poet laureate of Duluth. His work has featured the people as well as the plants and animals of northern Minnesota. He has published 10 books of poetry, most recently “One Morning In June: Selected Poems” (Red Dragonfly Press, 2020), which includes the poem in “The Count.” He now lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Isabella, Minn.