The common loon is the Minnesota state bird, though the migratory territory stretches far beyond the friendly confines of Minnesota. From coast to coast, throughout the United States and Canada, this bird dances and sings for any bird enthusiast lucky to get close enough. One of five species of loon, it is the most abundant and the only one to breed outside of Canada. It is a large bird (5 kilos), it has a wingspan up to a meter and a length up to a half meter. The female is slightly smaller than the male. Both sexes share similar markings: gray, black and white in color with blood red eyes. During the mating season, the birds develop a dark black head, with white necklace rings and a white belly, the body takes on the appearance of the charred ashy wood in a fire. The common loon is a fantastic swimmer and diver. It is similar to prehistoric birds in that it has heavy bones able to retain oxygen. This ability to retain air allows it to dive to depths of up to sixty meters. The most remarkable feature of the loon is the shrill, weary, ghostlike call.
Loons primarily dine on fish they catch while diving. The loon will spot prey and then dive, using strong legs at the back of the body to propel it, swallowing the fish whole. The loon can see up to ten meters or more beneath the surface but generally feed in water two-four meters deep. It also eats frogs, shellfish and insects.
It is a monogamous bird, pairing at three years of age. The pair finds a secluded area near a waterway in spring and builds a large nest (up to a meter in diameter) near or on the water source. The nest is made from typical swamp weeds and sticks. The pair builds the nest on an island or peninsula to evade advances of predators. If a waterway does not have such real estate, the pair will make their own island of twigs in the shallows. The common loon is a good flyer, but it takes some time to get air born. As an excellent swimmer the water is the best escape. The pair will return to the same nest annually if undisturbed.
After establishing their territory (one pair of loons prefer to occupy a small pond or lake), the pair will mate. They will wander ashore and the male will stand on the females’ shoulders. They will return to the water and dance and sing mating yodels to one another, flapping wings and walking on the water. The female will lay one to three brown eggs a day apart. The rule is two eggs that both parents incubate. The fledglings hatch after twenty–nine days and have spiky black down. They can swim and dive at two days old and learn to fly at two to three months. The fledglings stay with their parents and nest with them at night. They sometimes ride on the backs of their parents. When migration begins, the juveniles will begin to nest with others.
Adult loons are larger and have more body mass so they don’t have to migrate as far south to temperate regions. The juveniles fly to the coasts and feed voraciously, staying for 2-3 years. They have a gland similar to that of sea birds that allows them to dive in the salt water and inland brackish waterways. As the juveniles mature they begin to migrate north, sometimes in groups and often alone. One of their calls is most used during these solo migrations. Loons often travel by water instead of air, they will swim their way. When they encounter a bend or portage, they will fly over it. When they crash on a waterway they will dive to test the water, emerging with a call to above asking,
”This good fishing?”, or,
“Looking for a good time?”
They only hope another will answer.
The loon has other calls too. Eerie ones that haunt the senses and crumble in the spaces of history we forgot. Too often a camper hears the calls late at night, sighing heavy under a quilt of stars and a loon will owl out a screech that creaks in the bones of every old house you ever slept in. When your breath sucks in the warm air inside the tent staked into a bed of pine needles and the loon, the one you saw from the canoe earlier that day is letting you know that he is there and he knows you are here. It is their lake.
The common loon is endangered for a variety of reasons that are merely symptoms of a greater demise that may ruin us all. Human encroachment is the worst. Folks want cabins on pristine lakes and build monstrosities to soothe their desire. The destruction of habitat, use and abuse of resources and their subsequent pollution pose the greatest danger. Fishermen use lead weights on their lines that loons consume when they swallow gravel. Acid rain has had a detrimental effect on the strength of the shells. Predators, pushed closer together, prey on the eggs and scare the secluded loon away from their nests.
The common loon still provides a link to the origin of self. The ease and care of the loon, watching it piggyback the fledglings, calling in the night, diving for minutes to spring up next to your canoe, this is the majesty of the bird. Without preservation and care, these birds and similar waterfowl will inevitably be limited to sanctuaries and zoos.