Spirit of the North Woods
Minted in nickel, plated in bronze and indelibly embossed on the imaginations of generations of wilderness seekers, the loon is a quintessentially Canadian symbol. Human reverence for the bird is documented by the 5,000-year-old loon pictographs on cliffs scattered around the Great Lakes region. Loons, in fact, are sacred birds, bridging the material and spiritual worlds in a continuum of ancient lore from eastern North America all the way to central Siberia. In many remarkably similar versions of the creation story on both continents, it is the loon that retrieves mud from the bottom of primordial seas to form the Earth.
In addition to the loon’s ability to journey both in the sky and in the watery depths, the almost-human quality of its long, soulful call probably earned the awe of northern peoples. The familiar, modulating wail, sometimes heard in choruses on still nights or after a rain, is actually just one of four distinct types of loon call, each rising in pitch according to the intensity of emotion. The wail is used to summon mates and offspring, or as territorial declaration to neighbours.
Each male also has his own distinctive yodel for territorial defence. Neighbouring loons can recognize each other’s yodels from those of interlopers. Males sometimes yodel at low-flying planes. When they sense danger, loons blurt out a staccato phrase like the laugh of a mad scientist. The call probably inspired the saying “crazy as a loon,” as well as the goofy laughter of Daffy Duck, himself a confused amalgam of black duck and loon. A fourth type of call consists of hoots made by pairs, families or groups of loons as a kind of random small talk.
Most of the communication between loons, however, is actually by body language. American biologist William Barklow studied loons up close for 15 years, infiltrating their ranks by snorkeling among them with a goose decoy painted to look like a loon on the top of his head. He noted more than 25 regular communication body postures. Among them, loons greet each other by gracefully stretching out their wings, show submission by hunching low, and indicate peaceful or amorous intentions by pointing their beaks downwards.
Normally, a breeding pair of loons maintains an entire lake, or a bay in a large lake as their exclusive territory. In the rush to secure the best waters, loons return to their breeding grounds as soon as the ice breaks up in April or early May.
They are often the first birds swimming on the lake in spring and the last to leave in fall. Most are thought to mate for life, though they overwinter separately, renewing their relationship with an elegant, quiet, diving courtship waltz when they return to their original honeymoon lake each spring.
Loons mate and nest on land, within a metre of the shore. That’s about as far as they ever venture on dry ground because their legs are placed so far back under their bodies that they can walk only by using their wings as crutches, though flapping enables them to run. The word loon itself comes from the Scandinavian lom, which in English means “lame.” Their torpedolike bodies are built more for swimming and diving than flying. Many of their bones are solid, rather than honeycombed with air spaces like most birds’. Depending on the wind, they need 20- to 400-metre- (21- to 437-yard-) long takeoffs on the water to gain enough lift from their relatively small thrashing wings to fly. Takeoffs are impossible from land. Beneath the water, though, they pivot like otters and outswim most fish.
Even baby loons are in the water swimming within hours of hatching, usually in June. They paddle very close behind their parents, often riding on their backs during the first two or three weeks of their lives when they are tired, cold or in potential danger from underwater predators. Both parents take turns attending the loonlings, teaching them to fish when they are about four weeks old. In August, parents begin spending a few hours each day with growing groups of younger, non-mating loons for ritualized social gatherings on larger lakes, leaving their unfledged young at home. The visits grow longer until the young can totally feed themselves, by September or early October, when they are left for good. Fledglings soon form migratory flocks of up to 100 or more birds and follow their elders south, well spaced apart in long lines. Most young loons are believed to spend their second summer in the Maritimes, not returning to Ontario until they are two years old.
Their heavy dependence on fish, and their need for clear, undisturbed water to find them, has imperiled loons in areas under pressure from development. They have already been almost totally pushed out of summer breeding lakes in southern Ontario. Sudden water-level fluctuations from dams and motorboat wakes can flood out nests. Acid rain has cut down their fish supply in some lakes, while fish contaminated with mercury, aluminum, chlorinated hydrocarbons and other pollutants cause reproductive failure and nervous-system dysfunctions. Thousands of wintering loons wash up on Florida beaches some years, starved because they can no longer coordinate their muscles while trying to catch fish. So far, loon numbers in Ontario, which hosts about one-fifth of the summer North American population, appear to be stable. It is illegal to hunt them.
Average time under water: 40-45 sec
Maximum time under water: More than 3 min
Average depth of hunting grounds: 2-5 m (6.6-16 ft)
Deepest dives: 70 m (230 ft)
Average flying speed: About 120 km/h (72 mph)
Wing beats per second: 2.6-2.7
Migrating altitude: 1,500-2,700 m (5,000-9,000 ft)
Ontario Canadian Shield population: About 65,000 breeding pairs
Population density: Usually 1 pair or fewer per 10 sq. km (4 sq. mi)
Accolades: Official bird of Ontario and numerous outdoors organizations; bird on the $1 “loonie” coin
Length: 70-90 cm (2.3-3 ft)
Wingspan: 1.3-1.5 m (3.6-5 ft)
Weight: 2.7-6.3 kg (6-14 lb)
Loon weight/cm2 (0.15 sq. in) of wing: 2.5 g (0.05 oz)
Mallard duck weight/cm2 of wing: 1.4 g (0.05 oz)
Markings: Both sexes have iridescent black head and neck, white necklace around neck, checkered black-and-white back, white breast and belly, long, pointy black bill, red eyes; juveniles younger than 3 years old, and adults in fall and winter, have dark grey backs and white bellies
Alias: Great northern diver, le huart a collier, Gavia immer
Food: Perch, young bass, sunfish, minnows, crayfish, frogs, mollusks, leeches, aquatic insects, water-lily roots and other aquatic plants
Preferred habitat: Deep, clear lakes, large rivers
Breeding territory: 5-170 ha (22.5-425 acres)
Nest: Simple low pile of vegetation, often on the lee side of small islands, points, old muskrat lodges, or in a cove, just above the waterline
Average clutch: 2 olive-coloured eggs with dark spots, about the size of an average potato
Incubation period: 28-29 days
Loonling mortality: 15-30%
Fledging age: 11-12 weeks
Age at first breeding season: 4 years old
Lifespan: Up to 30 years
Predators: Crows, ravens, gulls, eagles, raccoons, skunks, snapping turtles and large fish
Range: All of Ontario, except for south. Also found throughout Canada except on the prairies, parts of the Arctic and built up areas
Winter whereabouts: Ontario loons go to Atlantic coast, a few in Great Lakes
Average first spring arrival in central Ontario: Mid- to late Apr.
Average last departure from central Ontario: Late Nov.
Oldest loon fossils: 40-50 million years
Number of breeding loon species in Ontario: 3
Number of loon species worldwide: 5
Also see: Blackflies, Common Merganser, Lakes, Perch
© Tim Tiner and Doug Bennet, Up North: A Guide to Ontario’s Wilderness from Black Flies to the Northern Lights, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1993