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The Common Loon

Loon Facts

Scientific name: Gavia immer
Length: 27 - 35 inches
Wingspan: around 60 inches
Weight: males larger; anywhere from 3.5 to 17 pounds
Plumage:  black, white and gray; darker during the breeding seasons; in winter, evenly gray; mainly distinguished by straight, black (and sharp) bill
Range: mostly found in northern United States and Canada lakes, waterways
Breeding grounds: Greenland, Canada and most northern United States including Alaska; on coasts and in-land lakes
Reproduction: breed once a year, near spring; will lay an average of 2 eggs;
Behavior: forager, bird of prey
Diet: carnivorous; fish, shrimp, lobster, crabs, mollusks, insects, etc.
Average lifespan: some researchers believe up to 9 years; other, 30 years
Threats: marine mammals like otters or larger birds of prey to adults; turtles, gulls,  raccoons and other rodents are known to take eggs and young loons
Conservation status: threatened; loss and degradation of habitat, pollution;  man is their biggest threat

The common loon is an aquatic migratory bird that has some rather strange characteristics. Its most intriguing quality are the unusual calls it makes - which vary from long wails to an almost maniacal laughter (known as the tremolo) to a yodel and a hoot. So loud and eerie are these calls that the well-known naturalist John Muir once remarked that they are “one of the wildest and most striking of all wilderness sounds.”

The loon is also known for being extremely awkward. Its legs are placed far back on its body which makes it a powerful swimmer. This arrangement, however, doesn't help when on land. Loons are rather clumsy when on their own two feet.

Wintering grounds are chosen based on whether or not the water will freeze. This is why this migratory bird prefers the Great Lakes and North America's Pacific and Atlantic coasts instead of the warmer climates many other migratory birds prefer. These spots are also abundant in the crabs, lobsters, shrimp, fish and gulf menhaden it prefers to eat.

Though we call them crazy, the common loon has the smarts to survive despite their disadvantages on the ground - and it's not just about their lack of ability when it comes to walking. Common loons are considered threatened in many of its natural habitats due to habitat loss and degradation. Pollution, particularly industrial waste, has also affected this aquatic bird.

Although man is the common loon's biggest threat, we are also the answer when protecting this species. Keeping habitats safe from land development and other human interferences will keep the loon coming back to its breeding and wintering grounds.

Interesting Facts about the Common Loon
  • Loons are visual predators, locating fish by sight and diving deep to catch them - as much as 200 feet! It swallows most of its meals underwater while larger animals are brought to the surface for consumption.
  • The red in the common loon's eye helps it to see under water.
  • Loons can fly more than 75 miles per hour.
  • Migrating loons will sometimes find themselves stranded if in areas where they think large bodies of water are found - like wet parking lots or small ponds. Without a long stretch of water to takeoff, these loons are stuck.
  • For a few weeks, loons are left flightless due to the molting of their wing's feathers.
  • Loon cries are most prevalent during breeding season as pairs aggressively defend their territories.
  • Common loons are believed to be monogamous; will have the same partner for life.
  • Many scientists also believe that loons have been around for at least twenty million years, making them the oldest and most primitive living bird today.  

Information gathered from Cornell's Lab of Orinthology's All About Birds, The National Geographic and Journey North's Common Loon and Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources.

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