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Loon Dies From Avian Malaria, Heightening Climate Concerns

A Common Loon photographed in Maine in 2010.
A Common Loon photographed in Maine in 2010.

PORTLAND, Maine - The death of a loon from avian malaria on a lake straddling Oxford County, Maine, and New Hampshire is raising concerns about climate change and illnesses transmitted through insect bites.

The bird, a Common Loon, died last summer on Umbagog Lake. It's the first confirmed death of a loon from the disease in either state.

Experts say the death raises climate concerns because it shows malaria parasites moving farther north, along with other tropical diseases.

Susan Gallo, of Maine Audubon, says the disease wasn't even present in loons in the area 25 years ago, but it's becoming more and more common.

"We always sort of frame malaria as, 'Oh it's a thing in the background, it weakens the loons,' " she says. "But to have one that actually died...it tells us that these changes that we're seeing, they really do have the potential to be meaningful in terms of the damage they might do."

Gallo says loons already face several threats, including predators. fireworks, boaters and lead in fishing tackle, and a new disease just adds to what she says is a "full plate" of stressors for the birds. But she says avian malaria is not likely to lead, on its own, to the demise of the species in the area.

Summer is loons' breeding season. According to Maine Audobon, there are about 4,500-5,000 adult loons in Maine, and about 250 breeding pairs in New Hampshire.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public