SERVICE EXCELLENCE

When Loons Dropped from the Sky in Georgia, VCA Stepped in to Help

Apr 12,2021
On March 25, 2021, VCA Appalachian Animal Hospital received a call from a concerned citizen who found a loon on a busy road after tornadoes stormed through the area the previous night
When severe warm-weather storms hit, you naturally worry about those on the ground—but what about those in the sky? 

On March 25, 2021, VCA Appalachian Animal Hospital, in Ellijay, Georgia, a charming Appalachian community located in northwestern Georgia, received a call from a concerned citizen who found an unusual injured bird on a busy road after tornadoes stormed through the area the previous night. 

“The woman wrapped the bird in a hoodie to protect herself from its powerful beak, and then called to see if we could help,” says Judi Filipaik, hospital manager at VCA Appalachian Animal Hospital. “When the bird arrived at our veterinary hospital, we unwrapped it from the hoodie—not an easy job—and then realized it was a loon!”

One loon, two loons

Then the phone rang again. Another person found an unusual bird in a market parking lot nearby. Staff told the caller to bring the bird in. As you’ve probably guessed, it was another loon.

“The first loon didn’t have a scratch on it,” explains Judi. “The second loon, only had a scrape on its nail, probably from landing on the pavement. We also did radiographic images on both birds but they both checked out okay. We believe both loons were female and most likely in a state of shock from the fall. Our staff had to be careful when holding the loons because their large beaks had an impressive range of motion.” 

Checking with wildlife experts

Jana Cargile, DVM, associate veterinarian at the animal hospital, called a local game officer for some additional support on how to help the loons who then passed the call to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). That’s when they discovered the DNR had received nine calls that day regarding loons falling from the sky. Because loons are heavy-bottomed migratory birds, they can get knocked out of the sky during storms. It’s a common phenomenon. 

Since the first loon had been in the clinic for several hours at this point, the staff knew they needed to get both birds to water as quickly as possible so they could get back on their northern migration route after wintering along the warm coastal waters and inland lakes. The experts told them to release the loons to a large body of water because they need one-quarter mile of open water. 
 
VCA Voice Loon Story
Large body of water essential to take flight

“While ducks doggy paddle in the water, we learned that loons swim more of a breast-stroke pattern, which means they need lots of surface water to get into the air—a long flight path,” notes Judi. “We decided to release the loons at Carters Lake located on the other side of town from our clinic, which is also the state’s deepest lake. The rivers in the area were running too fast at the time to be viable. While many people at the clinic volunteered to release the loons, we selected two veterinary technicians to take them to the water so they could rejoin their flock.” 

Hospital veterinary technicians Molly Wright and Nikki Zarnick had the honor of braving the storm and taking the loons to Carters Lake that day. “After opening the VCA cat carriers, the first loon dove down in the water right away,” says Molly. “The second loon jumped off the pier, shook, and then turned to us and called out that unique sound before she swam away. We believe it was to say ‘thank you!’”

“The first loon we released resurfaced far away from the point it first dove in by the pier,” says Nikki. “We hope they’ll take off together when they’re ready to migrate north again to their summer lakes. It was an amazing experience, and we’re so happy to be a part of returning the loons to their migration.”
 
Get to know loons

The eerie yodeling calls of common loons echo across clear lakes of the northern coniferous forests of North America—characteristic sounds of summer in the north woods. Summer adult loons wear beautiful black-and-white patterned feathers. Near the end of summer, loons will gather on many larger lakes prior to migrating south for the winter months. Most loons migrate south to the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans—at speeds of more than 70 mph. Adults will usually migrate before young birds do because the younger loons need additional time to mature before migration. 

In winter, their feathers change to gray above and white below. You’ll find loons close to shore on most warmer seacoasts and on inland reservoirs and lakes.

While most birds have hollow bones, loons have solid bones, which gives them needed weight to dive as low as 250 feet in search of food. To get a firm grip on slippery fish, a loon has sharp, rearward-pointing projections on the roof of its mouth and tongue. They’re powerful, agile divers that catch small fish in fast underwater chases, and can stay underwater for up to five minutes. 
 
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After several hours, the team released the loons back into the water. One loon jumped off the pier, shook, and then turned to us and called out before she swam away. We believe it was to say ‘thank you!’
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