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BIRDWISE: Close encounters of the turd kind

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On Memorial Day, Local bird expert Marshall Howe rescued a loon from the middle of Hwy. 34, and the state bird left "a magnificent token of its appreciation" on Howe's pants.
Contributed/Marshall Howe
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Little did I know what a special memory Memorial Day would bring for me.

Driving home after admiring inflationary prices in Park Rapids at the gas pumps and supermarkets, I approached the spot where State Hwy. 34 splits Long Lake from the bog lake to the north.

The wake from the car in front of me seemed to blow something into the middle of the lane. Part of my brain suggested it might be a duck. After all, we’ve all seen Mallard families risk their lives trying to cross roads.

I lurched to the right to avoid whatever it was and turned my head to look at the obstruction.

To my amazement, it was a common loon, just lying there on the pavement with its head up and alert, very much out of its normal habitat.

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I screeched to a halt on the side of the road and jumped out of the car.

Other cars were rapidly approaching, so I did my best to flag them down, only to see them simply slow down, but continue on both sides of me in the roadway.

When the coast was clear, I grabbed the loon and moved off to the Long Lake side of the road.

If you’ve never held a loon, I can tell you that they are heavy and very strong. It was all I could do to keep this bird from forcing itself out of my grip with its strong wings.

Also, it was very aggressive with its sharp beak, managing to draw some blood from my neck, arm and hands.

I was careful to hold it low enough to prevent it from attacking my eyes.

Birds, like loons and herons, which lunge to impale their prey, have a nasty habit of going directly for the eyes. A good friend and colleague of mine who worked with great blue herons wore a fencing mask to guard against such a tragedy.

As far as I could tell, this loon was perfectly healthy, not a victim of a serious collision with a vehicle.

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I managed to haul it down to the edge of the lake and dropped it on the shore, from which it managed to scurry into the water, swim out a few feet, then dive in typical loon fashion.

Feeling like a good Samaritan, I watched it disappear and walked back to the car.

060422.O.PRE.MarshallLoon.jpg
On Memorial Day, Local bird expert Marshall Howe rescued a loon from the middle of Hwy. 34, and the state bird left "a magnificent token of its appreciation" on Howe's pants.
Contributed/Marshall Howe

It was only then that I realized what a magnificent token of its appreciation the loon had bestowed upon me.

Loons, and their close relatives the grebes, are among the most aquatic of birds. With their feet placed far back on the body as an adaptation to propel themselves under water in pursuit of prey, they are virtually incapable of maneuvering on land.

And being so heavy, they need a long runway to take off from the water.

I suspect this one misjudged its runway length going from one water body to the other across Hwy. 34 and either landed on the road or glanced off a passing windshield.

Despite the ignominy of the whitewash, I wish this loon Godspeed after what, no doubt, was a very traumatic experience. And don’t worry. I’ll be fine.

Marshall Howe is a retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He specialized in bird population studies. Howe has been a Park Rapids resident since 2010.

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