Follow the Soap Opera-Worthy Relationship Drama of the World’s Oldest Common Loons

Called ABJ and Fe, the duo mated every spring for 25 years—but they split up in 2022. Now, they’re back at their Michigan breeding grounds, showing no signs of getting together

a pair of common loons, one carrying a chick on its back and the other with one leg sticking up, float in the water
The world's oldest common loons, ABJ and Fe, in July 2020. The pair's 32nd and last hatched chick sits on Fe's back. Common Coast Research & Conservation

The two oldest common loons in the world have returned to Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan, where they’ve flocked each spring for decades. But it remains to be seen whether the elderly male and female waterbirds will mate with each other this year.

Volunteers and refuge staffers are keeping a close eye on the pair, which consists of a female named Fe (pronounced “fay”) and a male named ABJ. Biologists know exactly how old ABJ is—37 years—because they banded him when he was a chick. Fe, meanwhile, is at least 38 years old.

The two loons have come to breed at the 95,000-acre wildlife refuge on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for most of their lives. And, starting in 1997, they paired up each time—Audubon magazine even dubbed them the “resident power couple” of Seney. They produced dozens of chicks and acquired a legion of human fans. But in 2022, ABJ and Fe split up, ending their long-standing mating streak.

The details of the break-up are a bit murky. Scientists didn’t see exactly what happened, but they suspect that a younger loon couple moved into ABJ and Fe’s territory, reported’s Sheri McWhirter in May 2022. After being evicted from their usual pond, ABJ and Fe fled to separate areas of the wildlife refuge.

Fe quickly found a new mate, an unidentified male, and hatched her 40th chick. ABJ wasn’t so lucky in love and spent “a solitary season of bachelordom,” according to Damon McCormick, co-director of the nonprofit Common Coast Research & Conservation, which has banded and monitored Seney’s loons, in a post on the refuge’s Facebook page earlier this month.

The loon drama continued last spring, when ABJ and Fe briefly reunited at Seney. But a day later, Fe was spotted with her new mate—and ABJ was gone.

Fe attempted to breed again with the new bird, but their reunion did not produce any chicks, according to the Facebook post. ABJ tried to mate with a female named Daisy, who was 20 years younger than him, but they also failed to produce chicks. Last year, ABJ also suffered from a broken upper mandible, which he likely injured while fighting with another male.

Common loons are not monogamous. But ABJ and Fe had a very long run together, reuniting each spring and mating for 25 years. They hatched 32 chicks during their quarter century of partnership, 29 of which successfully fledged. They averaged 1.4 fledged chicks per year, which was more than double the rate of the rest of Seney’s common loon population.

“They were rockstars in terms of productivity and fidelity,” McCormick tells Smithsonian magazine.

In the years leading up to their breakup, however, the couple had become less productive. They hatched a chick in 2020, but not in 2021.

This year, ABJ and Fe have both returned to the wildlife refuge, but they were spotted in different areas—ABJ is in a region called “E West,” while Fe was seen in “I Pool.” Though it’s still possible for the duo to link back up, McCormick writes that it is “very likely they will initiate their 2024 breeding seasons again apart.”

ABJ’s broken jaw, meanwhile, appears to have healed.

The two loons have attracted quite a few fans over the years. Upon learning they’d both returned to the refuge again this spring, one Facebook commenter wrote the pair was their “favorite annual drama.”

“They need their own reality TV show,” the user added.

“Better than the soap operas I grew up with my grandma watching,” another commenter responded.

Common loons spend the springs and summers breeding on serene freshwater lakes in the northern United States and Canada, where they stealthily dive under the surface to catch fish. They spend winters in coastal ocean waters on both sides of North America.

Breeding adults have black rounded heads, with striped black and white feathers around their necks. Their back feathers make a black and white checkerboard pattern. Common loons are known for their distinctive calls, which are frequently used during creepy scenes in movies—even in settings outside the birds’ real-life range.

For McCormick, it’s no surprise that people are fascinated with ABJ and Fe—and with common loons more broadly.

“People love loons,” he says. “They’re drawn to loons for all the obvious reasons—their haunting calls, their stunning plumage. What we’ve tried to do is leverage that to help teach people more about them.”

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