Michigan’s Amazing Animals: Common Loon

by Patrick Bevier

Common loons are one of the most mysterious animals we have in Michigan. To unravel some of the mystery, here are some fascinating, fabulous, and funny facts about those beautiful, bewitching, and boisterous birds:

The Name Game: The scientific name of the common loon is Gavia immer. Gavia is a Latin term meaning ‘seabird’ and immer is from the Latin “immerses” which translates to ‘submerged’. Another moniker for these birds is Great Northern Diver, which acknowledges their amazing underwater skills. There are five species of Gavia worldwide, all living above the equator, with the common loon being by far the most frequent inhabitant of the Mitten State. A close relative, the red-throated loon, makes an occasional appearance in our area and can be identified by its burnt orange hued triangular throat patch, and small, narrow head.

Great Divers Indeed: When pursuing fish, a common loon can dart down to 200 foot-depths! They torpedo through the water with powerful thrusts of webbed feet and have solid bones which make them less buoyant than hollow-boned ducks. This skeleton contributes to common loons being the heaviest of the Gavia species as they may tip the scales at over 13 pounds. Further, loons can spend an amazing eight minutes underwater, and rarely come to the surface without an aquatic animal in their beak.

Photo by Deb Traxinger.

Not So Ducky: Common loons resemble ducks in shape and behavior except for a very pointed bill that helps them to spear their prey and feet located further back on the body. They sport mostly black plumage with a grid-like pattern of white spots across the wings, a thick black necklace, smooth head, small ruby colored eyes, and a white underbelly. There is no sexual dimorphism as male and female loons look similar to one another except males are sometimes slightly larger. The common loon’s feathers change dramatically between the breeding and non-breeding seasons. As a matter of fact, you probably wouldn’t recognize the understated non-breeding version with its drab brown body and white face and neck.

Still Not Too Common: Although population numbers appear to be rising slightly, common loons still carry the conservation status of threatened in the Great Lakes State. Threatened species are defined as those that may become endangered if conservation efforts are not increased. Indeed, in Michigan it is estimated that we have only 500-700 nesting pairs of loons. Please do not disturb them by getting too close, especially when they are nesting.

Loon Rangers: To monitor populations, Michigan has an ongoing Natural Features Study on these birds and specially assigned citizens are known as Loon Rangers! Can I get a, “High-Ho-Silver, Away!” for them?

Loquacious Loons: Loons emit some of the most distinctive and recognizable calls of all North American wildlife, and feature a variety of vocalizations. In fact, they produce four distinct calls (wail, yodel, hoot, and tremolo). The iconic wail is associated most with loons, and is a prolonged, haunting bellow that is used to signal their whereabouts to faraway mates. The yodel is an undulating shriek uttered by males only and means, “stay out of my territory!”. The hoot is used to occasionally signal nearby family members. Finally, the tremolo, is a cackling sound uttered when they feel threatened.

Summer Love: Loons generally mate for life but will take another partner if one dies. In Michigan loons usually arrive in April and begin preparing their nest in May. Nests are constructed of contoured marsh vegetation in sheltered areas and the clutch size is one or two large brown eggs with black splotches. Males and females take turns incubating the eggs which hatch in 26-29 days. The adorable, fully-feathered, brownish gray puffballs begin swimming within hours of hatching.

Thanks for the Ride, Mom! One of the most unusual behaviors of common loons is that the chicks ride on their parents’ backs. Two reasons for this piggy-back behavior are that it keeps the chicks warm and decreases predation from underwater hunters like snapping turtles and northern pike, and terrestrial predators like mink and fox. During the first week after hatching a chick may spend up to 50% of its time getting chauffeured with a sharp decline of back-riding thereafter. However, we have observed chicks over half the size of the parent sneaking a lift if they can get away with it!

Photo by Joni Roberts.

Bye, Bye Baby: It’s quite ironic, however, that such nurturing parents often leave their chicks “in the dust” near the end of their first summer of existence. During September the loon parents fly off to separate parts of the country-usually the warmer areas of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico-with nary a thought for what might happen to the now three-month old chicks. The good news is that the youngsters, who have grown like weeds and are now almost the size of the parents, instinctively know to fly for warmer climes as well.

Long-in-the-Tooth Loons: As bird species go loons live a relatively long life. Indeed, Michigan boasts the oldest known loon pair in the world! The couple, named “ABJ” and “Fe,” have nested in the U.P.’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge since 1997. Having been banded much earlier, the male, “ABJ,” is 34-years-old while “Fe,” the female, reaches a remarkable 35-years-old this summer! Close eyes are kept on this couple as each year Michigan conservationists celebrate their return. It’s estimated that this dynamic duo has produced up to 40 “Yooper” loon chicks over their lifetime!

Piscatorial Palette: Loons have a somewhat specialized diet including gobbling up crayfish and aquatic insects but definitely consume more fish than anything else. While teaching them how to hunt, parents feed the chicks for many weeks of their young lives.

Like a Drunken Sailor: Because their legs are further back than any other type of water bird, loons have a distinct disadvantage on land. They are incapable of walking upright and instead stagger and crawl on their bellies until they can reach water again. That explains why loons nest on vegetation very close to the water’s edge in case they have to make a quick getaway in the presence of predators. Therefore, Gavia species spend their entire lives paddling, fishing, and loving, in the water. Their weight, however, makes it difficult for them to take flight and the birds often have to frantically run on the water’s surface for up to 600 yards to accomplish that feat. Accordingly, you won’t find loons nesting in small bodies of water.

Flying Phenom’s: Once airborne, loons can fly up to 75 miles per hour and can amass hundreds of miles of flying distance without rest!

Ever-Changing Eyes: Interestingly, the commonloons’ eye color changes dramatically from a dull gray during winter to a piercing crimson in spring and summer. Ornithologists hypothesize that this may be for attracting mates or for better underwater vision in fresh water.

Looney Tunes: Although the popular cartoon borrowed their name for the series, a loon character never appeared. Instead, a rabbit, duck, pig, cat, parakeet, and even a bumbling hunter graced the screen with names like Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Sylvester, Tweety, and Elmer. The goal was to, of course, have the viewer, “laughing like a loon!”

Legendary Loon Literature: A delightful children’s book was written and illustrated by Michigan artists Kathy-jo Wargin and Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, respectively. It’s titled, “The Legend of the Loon” with a theme of a grandmother’s love for her grandchildren. It was published by popular Michigan-based book creators Sleeping Bear Press (sleepingbearpress.com).

An Avian Accident: A funny story comes our way from our Canadian cousins up north. Seems that their beloved dollar coin that was first minted in 1986, and sports a loon picture on the tails-side, was never meant to be. The initial intent for these coins, affectionately known as “loonies,” was to have two voyagers in a canoe opposite Queen Elizabeth’s’ face. But the die for that design went missing at the last minute and the mint decided to slap on a picture of a loon instead. Today, many people – particularly hockey players – consider loonies to be good luck.

Those are some common loon characteristics about these not so common creatures. With good fortune you’ll encounter one or more this summer on the wonderful waters of Michigan!