The haunting cry of the Common Loon can be heard across Ontario this time of year. Loons have long been considered by many North Americans as symbolizing wilderness and solitude. Many cottage-goers, campers, and vacationers would feel their trip was incomplete without seeing a loon or listening to its haunting call.
COMMON NAME: Common Loon
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Gavia immer
HABITAT: Lakes and ponds
DIET: Loons are predators; their diet in summer consists of fish, crayfish, frogs, snails, salamanders, and leeches. Adult loons prefer fish to other food, and seem to favour perch, suckers, catfish, sunfish, smelt, and minnows.
SUMMER COLOUR PATTERN: Adults have a black-and-white checkered back, glossy black head, white belly and wing lining, and characteristic white necklace around the throat
WINTER COLOUR PATTERN: From September to March, adults are plain gray on the back and head with a white throat.
AVERAGE LIFE SPAN IN THE WILD: 15 to 30 years
LENGTH: 26.0-35.8 in (66-91 cm)
WEIGHT: 2.7 kg to 6.3 kg (Loons are very heavy birds because of their solid bones which is unusual in the bird world)
WINGSPAN: 40.9-51.6 in (104-131 cm)
*** GREAT PLACE TO PHOTOGRAPH: Northern Lakes in Ontario.
LOONS ARE EXTREMELY GOOD DIVERS - A common loon can plunge over 200 feet below the water’s surface. How is this possible? Unlike most birds, loons have solid bones that make them less buoyant and better at diving. They can quickly blow air out of their lungs and flatten their feathers to expel air within their plumage, so they can dive quickly and swim fast underwater. Once submerged, common loons can hold their breath for as long as eight minutes. Thanks to these talents, the birds are sometimes referred to as “great northern divers.”
ON LAND, THEY ARE KLUTZY - Over millions of years of evolutions, loon legs were pushed towards the rear of their bodies. This helped the birds become more graceful swimmers, both underwater and at the surface. However, on land loons stumble around and push themselves along on their bellies. so they try to avoid walking whenever possible. In egg-laying season, mated pairs will look for a nesting site that’s close to the water’s edge.
THEY NEED A LONG RUNWAY - Loons are strong fliers, however getting into the air is a challenge. Due to their size and anatomy, they cannot take off on dry land. The heavier birds must have a large surface of water to run across, like a plane in order to gain enough speed for lift-off. Migrating loons occasionally land on wet highways or parking lots, mistaking them for rivers and lakes. They become stranded without a considerable amount of open water for a long takeoff. A loon may also get stranded on a pond that is too small.
THEY CAN EAT A LOT - A hungry loon family can put away a lot of fish. Biologists estimate that loon parents and their two chicks can eat about a half-ton of fish over a fifteen week period.
THEIR EYE COLOR CHANGES - In the colder months, the birds’ eyes are a dull gray. But in the spring and summer, they turn a vibrant shade of red. Scientists don’t know why this happens, although it may have something to do with attracting a mate.
BABIES HITCH RIDES ON THEIR PARENTS’ BACKS - A newborn loon will spend most of its first week riding around on a parent’s back. Apart from keeping them warm, it helps keep the young safe from large fish and other predators, such as snapping turtles. Chicks will stay close to their parents for two to three months, at the end of this period, they are capable of flying on their own and looking after themselves.
A HAPPY ACCIDENT PUT THE COMMON LOON ON CANADIAN COINS - Canadian wallets and car consoles are stuffed with “loonies” - the one dollar coins that have a portrait of the common loon. In 1986, the Royal Canadian mint was gearing up to release a new dollar coin. The design had already been selected: Queen Elizabeth’s face would be on the front and two voyagers in a canoe were to appear on the tails side. When making a two-sided coin, each of the images that will be included must be engraved into a metallic stamp called a die. Unfortunately, the canoe dies went missing before Canada’s new one-dollar coins could be created. As a last-minute replacement, the mint decided to slap on a picture of a loon instead.
THE OLDEST COMMON LOON - The oldest recorded Common Loon was a female, and at least 29 years old, 10 months old when she was spotted in Michigan in 2016 and identified by her band. She had been banded in the same state in 1989.