THE eerie wail of the common loon is a sound few people forget. * Conveying the solitude of the wilderness, the cry can be heard at remote freshwater lakes and rivers in Canada, Europe, and the northern United States.
A handsome waterbird, the loon is the state bird of Minnesota, U.S.A., and it appears on Canada’s dollar coin—the loonie. The bird is migratory, however, and winters mostly in coastal areas farther south. What makes the common loon a bird to be heard?
Wails, Hoots, Tremolos, and Yodels
Loons have some impressive vocalizations. Their haunting wail is heard in the evening or at night and carries for miles. A less intense call is the hoot, which is used to keep in touch with mates, chicks, and other loons on the same lake. The tremolo is an alarm signal. Described as “insane laughter,” the tremolo is the only call that loons make in flight.
The yodel is a male-only call and “seems to be associated with territorial defense,” says the journal BirdWatch Canada. “Each male has his own characteristic yodel,” and “the heavier the loon, the lower the pitch.” Moreover, when a male “changes territory, he changes his yodel,” and “it makes its yodel as different as possible from that of the previous resident,” the journal states.
Attractive, Adroit, and Awkward
The loon has a very dark, almost black, iridescent-green head, with red eyes and a long, pointed black bill. Its general plumage changes according to the season.
Having large webbed feet, loons are efficient predators, powerful swimmers, and adroit divers. In fact, they may dive as deep as 200 feet (60 m), occasionally staying submerged for several minutes at a time!
The loon’s takeoffs and landings, however, are not its strong points! Because of its weight, the bird needs a “runway” to get airborne, and it may flap and run along the water for hundreds of yards (m) before taking off. Hence, loons prefer large bodies of water. When landing, the loon comes in at high speed with legs stretched out behind, as though its “undercarriage” had failed. It then hits the water on its belly and skims along until coming to a stop.
Although well-suited for swimming, the loon’s big webbed feet and their location way back on its body make walking—and even standing—awkward. Hence, loons build their nests where they can easily slip into the water.
Both parents take turns incubating the eggs (usually two), which are olive colored and camouflaged with dark spots. They hatch after an average of 29 days. When they are two days old, the chicks can swim and even make short dives. When they need to rest, they simply hitch a ride on a parent’s back. After two or three months, when the young are able to fly, they leave their parents.
The loon’s enemies include eagles, gulls, raccoons, and—worst of all—humans. Lead fishing weights and oil spills poison the birds. Chemical pollution from acid rain reduces the fish stocks on which loons depend. Waves from moving boats swamp their nests. And lakeshore development sends the reclusive loon away from its breeding habitat.
That said, the loon population remains healthy. Hence, this dashingly handsome bird with its inimitable calls and amusing ways should enchant bird lovers for many years to come.
^ par. 2 Also called great northern diver and great northern loon.