Jeff Green | May 29, 2008
Outdoors - May 29, 2008
Back toHomeOutdoors in the LandO'Lakes - May 29, 2008 Song of the wilderness: the common loon Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Lorraine Julien
For those of us who visit or live in lake country, there is one sound like no other – the haunting call of the Common Loon. It may sound like a cry or a yodel – perhaps even laughter – but no other sound evokes the feel of the northern lake country like the cry of a loon. Loons are reported to be among the oldest groups of birds still living today, with a history, some think, stretching back more than 50 million years.
Year after year, during spring, the loons move northward in pairs to their home lakes. The same pair may stay together for many years. They seek out the same old nesting site usually on the lee shore of an island or near the end of a peninsula. The nest is usually built on the edge of deep water so that they slip quietly into the water for food or to chase predators. Both the male and female take turns sitting on the eggs, which usually number two. Incubation is almost a month, then the young downy birds dive into the water within a day or two of hatching. During the first few weeks, they frequently travel on the parents’ backs. Extremely buoyant, a chick swims close behind the head of the nearly submerged parent. When the parent rises to the surface, the chick rides high and dry among the warm feathers.
When a breeding pair arrive here in the spring, they are dressed in the beautiful plumage that we are familiar with – a black head and neck with a white necklace and a black checkered back with white spots. They are fairly large birds, up to 36” long with large feet set far back on their bodies. Because of this, loons are ungainly and almost helpless on land, but as soon as they slip into the water they transform into powerful swimmers and divers. Like all loons, they can sink by compressing the feathers and squeezing air from their bodies.
The Common Loon can plunge to depths exceeding 150 feet and can remain below for a minute or more in search of small fish. Other food includes insects, frogs and crustaceans.
Although loons are usually in pairs throughout most of the spring and summer when they’re raising their young, we’ve noticed that by late August they begin to gather in groups as though they now have time to socialize. It is very comical to watch these groups hold “flight schools” (as we call them). One after another will run along the water flapping their wings and trying to gain some height. More often than not, the early attempts will result in somersaults or going “end over end”.
Although the loons may have been around for millions of years, their present challenges may well be the most severe they have faced throughout that period. Human activities have decreased the abundance and the breeding range of Common Loons in North America over the past 150 years. These declines may be due to a number of factors:
Shoreline development and shrinking wilderness.
Contamination of lakes by acid rain which can reduce fish stocks.
Activities such as operators of motor boats whose wake can swamp the nests or drown chicks.
Predators such as raccoons, gulls, and even bears have increased because of the availability of human garbage. They would not hesitate to enjoy a meal of loon eggs if the nest is left unattended.
Destruction of nests by varying water levels perhaps caused by damming for flood control or hydroelectric power.