Loon Intelligence: Oxymoron or Tautology?

A recent post on the Loon Cam YouTube Chat asked if loons act purely out of instinct or make deliberative, rational decisions. This is basically the age-old question dating back to Rene Descartes in the 1600s or probably even earlier. The main problems are that we can’t ask the loons their opinion and we can only judge intelligence by our own standards, which vary by individual. Case in point: I often hear the admonition, “It’s a mistake to anthropomorphize animals.” I agree. When it comes to rationality and sentience, we can’t prove that other animals operate as we do. But on the other hand, I often reply that, “It’s a mistake to de-animalize humans.” Either stance is a stab in the dark, a gross over-simplification, and truth probably lies somewhere in between.
But using anecdotal observations of my own and of colleagues, I think we can can at least create some fodder for animal behavioral biologists (ethologists) to develop and test some hypotheses. 
  • There are city loons and country loons. After ten years of observing loon behavior on lakes throughout New Hampshire, I’m convinced that loons adapt to the presence or absence of human development. A loon in the channel of the Weirs on Winnipesaukee reacts to human presence much differently than a loon on Cummins Pond in the wilds of Dorchester.
  • Loons learn through experience. First time nesters have a lower success rate than older, more experienced loons. Loons that experience a nest failure are much more likely to change the location of their next nest.
  • Loons can recognize individual people by facial features and decide (on their own terms) whether that person is friend or foe . I and a colleague of mine have had too many first-hand experiences to doubt this. And if you think my assertion is far-fetched, read the work of John Marzluff, who studies crow behavior.
  • Loons have a curious nature. Wave a bandanna over your head so that it flaps and/or give your best rendition of some loon hoots and there is a good chance a nearby loon will come over to investigate. They have no reason to be programmed to do that. They just want to know what’s going on. As soon as they see that there is nothing of interest to stick around, they just roll their eyes and swim away.
  • Chicks often mimic their parent’s actions. They’re learning how to be loons.
Proof of thoughtful deliberation and decision making? Maybe not.
Indicative of instinctual, mechanistic action? Certainly not.