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Kevin Kenow is a longtime researcher at the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse, Wis., who has specialized in studying migratory birds, especially tundra swans and loons.

Erik Daily, AP/La Crosse Tribune

La Crosse man stuck a transmitter into a dead loon, launched a career

  • Article by: BETSY BLOOM
  • Associated Press
  • May 27, 2014 - 12:20 AM

LA CROSSE, Wis. — The taxidermist called it the strangest request he'd ever had.

He'd been brought a dead loon. Nothing too odd about that. But wildlife biologist Kevin Kenow asked the bird be mounted to look, well, flopped over dead.

What Kenow then did with the loon might seem, at first glance, even stranger: He stuck a radio transmitter in it.

Avian botulism had been killing loons and other waterfowl by the thousands on the Great Lakes. Most assumed birds that succumbed to the toxin would wash up not far from where they died, but Kenow and other researchers wanted to be sure.

So he had the wired-up stuffed loon dropped into Lake Michigan and tracked how it drifted, where the current and winds might carry it. He found that, given the right conditions, a dead bird actually could travel across the lake. That data went into a computer model that might help trace botulism outbreaks on the Great Lakes back to their source.

Kenow, 57, has made a career of outfitting birds with transmitters for tracking. Most have been alive, but he's known for adapting his techniques for the situation.

"He's very, very creative. He stays current with technology," said Jim Nissen, the La Crosse District manager for the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, who has worked closely with Kenow on a number of studies. "He's just a tremendous resource ... and he understands what you're trying to do."

It led the U.S. Department of the Interior in April to award Kenow a citation for meritorious service for "his scientific leadership and exceptional contributions to the U.S. Geological Survey ... in the fields of waterbird ecology and wildlife telemetry."

Kenow first started wiring waterfowl for sound in the 1980s, while pursuing his master's degree at the University of Wisconsin after several years at Minnesota and Illinois refuges. They were trying to study waterfowl predation at Horicon Marsh using red-headed ducks but found that strapping transmitters onto the birds didn't work well with diving species.

The equipment irritated the ducks and opened holes in their feathers that left them exposed to cold water. So Kenow learned to implant the devices in the birds' abdomens, not long after they hatched.

He was called on in 1987 to use the same techniques for a canvasback study on the Mississippi River with La Crosse-based biologist Carl Korschgen and Nissen. It landed him at the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center on French Island, where he's been ever since.

His telemetry techniques have been shared globally; a veterinarian with the USGS Alaska Science Center used it with 32 species there and trained another 35 veterinarians worldwide.

Kenow has joined in a number of research projects over the years, many of them in the refuge, such as growth of arrowhead, wild celery and other water vegetation before and after drawdowns in Mississippi River pools 8, 5 and 6 last decade. He excels, Nissen said, at devising ways to get a true measure of what's being studied.

Kenow said he enjoys the challenge of coming up with new techniques and "working out the bugs."

"It allows use of the imagination," he told the La Crosse Tribune.

Much of that effort has focused on the common loon, such as the effects of mercury from coal-fired energy plants, migration patterns to the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the massive 2010 oil rig leak and, of course, the avian botulism deaths on Lake Michigan.

Today, Kenow can rig birds with transmitters that not only record location and movement but a host of other data — light levels, temperature, even water pressure that revealed loons on the Great Lakes dive far deeper than originally thought, probably feeding on the invasive round goby.

Adult loons will spend about a month on Lake Michigan before moving on to the Gulf of Mexico in late November. Juveniles, in contrast, usually stay on the smaller inland lakes where they were raised through the fall, then quickly head south, where they can remain for years.

Kenow actually receives an email every morning from his wired birds, telling him where they are that day. He has 176 carrying geolocators and 31 rigged with more sophisticated satellite transmitters.

He plans this summer to focus more on juveniles, hopefully fitting 21 young loons with transmitters.

Loons are long-lived but reproduce more slowly than ducks and geese, with usually only two chicks hatched a year. Those can fall victim to exposure, fish, snapping turtles, eagles — "their arch enemy" — and other birds of prey, and, perhaps surprisingly, "rogue" loons that will kills the chicks while "trying to test territories," Kenow said.

The species had a rough year in 2013, when ill-timed ice storms sent migrating loons tumbling down from the sky. While wildlife rehabilitators treated 60 grounded birds picked up along roadsides or in farm fields, Kenow fears for those that weren't found. A loon's legs, he explained, are placed so far back it can't walk on land — it moves by awkwardly pushing itself along on its belly — so it's incapable of taking off unless on water.

Then high winds on one lake he studied last year flipped nesting platforms set out for the loons, wiping out an entire breeding season.

Yet even with those setbacks, and the rise in botulism on the Great Lakes, loons in general are doing well, with a stable population, Kenow said.

Recently, he's been looking at loons closer to home, in the cranberry-producing areas near Black River Falls, Wisconsin Rapids and Tomah. Logan High School students in La Crosse built nesting platforms Kenow hopes can be used to coax the birds, which once nested as far south as northern Illinois, into their former haunts.

While he "always liked loons" while growing up in the Minneapolis area, Kenow said he didn't initially set out to make them or waterfowl the focus of his work. Every researcher finds a niche, and this turned out to be his.

"That's just kind of been my path," Kenow said. "But I never would have thought I'd work with loons this long."

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