Published on February 16, 2013 by Amy
Loons are one of the oldest groups of flying birds still living. The first loons, virtually unchanged, appeared over 60 million years ago! These birds have become masters at adapting to climate and environmental changes. If you have ever heard the cry of the loon, it is not hard to envision the primitive world they once lived in.
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The Common Loon (Gavia immer) of today is a fairly large bird, averaging eleven pounds. Its wings stretch 50 inches from tip to tip, and its body is over twenty-eight inches long. It has a strong black bill for catching fish, crayfish, insects and even snails. Its bright red eyes are capable of seeing at depths below fifteen feet, and its strong legs are located far back on its body for maximum speed in the water. Unlike most flying birds, the loon has solid bones which enable it to dive to depths of up to 150 feet, although its dives are usually more shallow.
Loons are very awkward on land because their legs are located at the back portion of their body. They only come ashore for two reasons: to mate and to nest. Loons mate for life and spend their summers together raising their chicks. In the fall and winter months, the adult loons fly to separate wintering locations until courtship time the next spring. Usually two olive green eggs with dark spots are laid in a nest built of grasses and ferns. Nests are located near the water’s edge and are often built on an island to limit possible predation. Loons return to nest sites year after year if left undisturbed. Once the chicks hatch they take to the water almost immediately, but they tire easily and soon learn that their parents’ backs are great for resting on. Toward the end of summer, loons can be seen “chasing” their offspring up and down the lake trying to get them to fly. Loons need to flap across nearly a quarter of a mile of water to attain flight! Once in the air, they are capable of traveling great distances.
Young loons are left by their parents at the end of summer to find their own way. The young birds will stay at the lake until it is almost time for the water to freeze. They then fly to the coast to spend the next three or four years. At this time they are a drab gray color and their body rids itself of excess salt through a nasal salt gland found commonly in ocean birds. The juvenile birds eat cod, mackerel and other ocean fishes and crabs. The young birds must compete with the adult birds for food during the winter months, as the adults migrate to the ocean while the lakes are frozen, The adults are hard to distinguish from the juvenile birds in winter as they too are drab gray. The mature birds will regain their summer attire before migration time the next spring.
Sometimes loons gather into small groups in the summer. In September, group feeding is quite common as loons gather on larger lakes while migrating. Loons are also usually found in groups on the wintering grounds.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Common Loons is their haunting and variable voice. Loons are most vocal from mid-May to mid-June. They have four distinct calls which they use in varying combinations to communicate with their families and other loons. These are the tremolo, wail, yodel, and hoot. The tremolo sounds like a crazy laugh and is used for a variety of purposes, such as to signal alarm or worry and to denote annoyance or greeting.
The wail is one of the loveliest of loon calls. It is used frequently during social interactions between loons and may be used to regain contact with a mate during night chorusing and in answering other loon tremolos. The yodel is given only by the male. It is a long, rising call with repetitive notes in the middle and can last up to six seconds. It is used by the male to defend territory and can be stimulated by another male entering a loon’s territory. Studies of recordings have shown that the yodel is different for each bird and can be used to identify individual loons. The hoot is a one-note call that sounds more like “hoo.” It is mainly used by family members to locate each other and check on their well-being.
Although loons have managed to adapt to many changes in their environment over the years, their future is not certain. Man is rapidly populating lakes where few people were found. In places where man is a frequent visitor, loons sometimes fail to return if their nests are too close to human activity, or if they are frequently disturbed while in their nests. Loons, like other wildlife, suffer from other man-made problems such as oil spills, acid rain, plastics and even garbage. Accumulation of garbage attracts gulls and raccoons, who in turn feed on loon eggs and chicks. But even with all these problems, loons seem to be adapting. They have been seen nesting on alternative nest sites in highly populated lakes. Some have even begun using artificial nest platforms designed for their use. Loons that live on the more densely populated lakes are becoming less fearful of man and don’t flush as easily as those on lakes with few humans.