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The common loon's range covers much of Canada and the U.S.

Did you know?

The loon can dive below water to catch prey or hide from danger and can remain submerged for up to eight minutes.

Scientific name: Gavia immer
Average weight: 5.5 kg (male)
4.5 kg (female)
Average height: 2 m (female smaller than male)
Average length: 80 cm
Average wingspan: 1.2 m
Average lifespan: 4 years (maximum 30)
A common loon swimming in Ontario.

About

Biology

For anyone familiar with cottage country in central Canada, the call of the common loon is as much a part of the experience as are the lakes and trees. Named for its clumsy gait when walking on land, the loon is a regular feature of the North American wilderness and a much-celebrated Canadian icon.

The male and female share similar characteristics, although the male is generally larger. About twice the size of a mallard duck, the adult loon has dark red eyes, a pointed black bill and, in summer, a black head and neck with vertical white striping. White also checkers, spots and lines its back and covers its underside.

The loon’s body is streamlined, and its legs are located farther back on its trunk, allowing for optimal movement in the water but making it ungainly on land. When diving, it can keep its head directly in line with its neck to reduce drag. Its legs have powerful muscles for swimming, and the loon’s bones are heavier than those of most birds, further aiding its diving ability. 

Habitat and behaviour

The loon’s main activities include hunting, feeding, resting, preening and caring for its young. Perhaps the loon’s most distinguishing feature is its yodelling, hooting, wailing and tremolo calls, which have been likened to the demented laughter of demons or the lonely cries of banshees and have perhaps lent to the expression “crazy as a loon.” The calls are used in varying combinations to communicate with mates, offspring and other loons.

A predatory animal, the loon feeds on small fish and invertebrates. It sometimes ingests grit and pebbles to aid in the digestion of fish bones and crustacean shells. Known in Eurasia as the “great northern diver,” the loon is an excellent swimmer and a highly skilled diver. It can dive more than 70 metres in pursuit of its prey. It also dives when threatened, surfacing a safe distance away and continuing this evasive behaviour until the danger has passed.

The adaptations that make the loon such an efficient diver, however, slow it down when it takes flight. To become airborne, the loon runs across the surface of the water until it gains enough speed to take off. Its landings are an equally ungainly affair, as the loon slaps down at high speeds and plows into the water to stop itself.

Range

Found in every province and territory in the country, the common loon is truly a Canadian animal. It spends the winter months along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, from Alaska and Newfoundland in the north to Mexico in the south, as well as in Europe and Iceland.

During the spring and summer months, the loon prefers to nest on lakes with clear water, making it easier to find prey. It is especially drawn to lakes with rocky shorelines and deep bays and inlets.

A migratory bird, the loon travels its fall route between September and December and returns in spring between March and June.