The common loon is a very large, fish-eating aquatic bird. Loons in New York are about the size of a goose, and weigh in at an average of twelve pounds. Loons are easily identified by their beautiful and distinctive black and white feather patterns, their dark red eyes, and their powerful, dagger-like beaks. Their lifespan is believed to be fifteen to thirty years.
Common loons can be found on summer nesting grounds throughout most of Canada and the northernmost regions of North America. They spend their winters at the ocean along both the east and west coasts of North America.
Common loons nest on quiet northern lakes and large ponds. Loons prefer bodies of water with islands or bays that offer isolation and protection for their nests.
The loon diet is composed mainly of fish like perch, suckers, or minnows. However, common loons are not fussy eaters, and will eat almost anything including crayfish, amphibians, leeches, macroinvertebrates, and plants.
Since loons are adapted for aquatic living and have great difficulty walking on land, they always nest right at the water’s edge, with quick access to the water. Loon parents are not very careful in their nest construction, and literally throw together a big heap of mud and vegetation. This ramshackle nest is usually home for one or two olive green eggs dotted with brown spots. After hatching, chicks leave the nest in less than 24 hours. Young chicks may be seen riding on their parent’s backs, and being fed by either parent. It takes about two months (eight weeks) for a young loon to become independent, but a juvenile won’t take flight for about eleven weeks. Each loon becomes sexually mature at the age of 3 years.
While loons are often recognizable with their brilliant plumage, their calls are absolutely unforgettable, and have inspired many centuries of poets and musicians. There are four main calls made by the common loon, including the tremolo, wail, yodel, and hoot. The tremolo is usually given when the loon is anxious or worried, like when you have canoed too close to their chicks. The wail is intended to make contact with other loons, and choruses of loon wails are well known to haunt Adirondack nights. The yodel is a territorial call given only by males, and the hoot is a gentle call used to help family members locate and check-in with each other.
While eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predators like raccoons, gulls, crows, skunks, and otters, and many adult loons die of disease on their ocean wintering grounds, most threats to loons come from human activity. Loss of habitat due to lakeshore development, deterioration of water quality due to acid rain and chemical contamination, artificial fluctuation of water levels, and disturbance of loons during the nesting season all contribute to declines in loon populations. Jet Ski and other motorized watercraft can swamp nests or cause parents to abandon their nests, and drown chicks. Monofilament line can lethally entangle loons and other wildlife, and lead sinkers are often accidentally ingested by loons, which then die of lead poisoning.
How You Can Help Protect the Loon
- Trade your lead sinkers for non-lead sinkers, which can be acquired free of charge from the Audubon Society.
- When operating motorized watercraft or a canoe, steer clear of loons, especially loons with chicks. Please don’t go close to a loon sitting on a nest, as this may cause abandonment and subsequent predation of eggs. Respect this symbol of our northern wilderness by giving it the privacy it needs to survive.
- Get involved with local lake associations to help limit development along the water’s edge.