The anatomy of the loon is specifically geared toward its need to capture fish. Its body is torpedo-shaped, and its neck is thick but longer than the average water bird. There are three toes on each of the two webbed feet, and the legs are toward the back of the body. Though the loons’ underparts are totally white, the upperparts are dark gray or black, and the wings have a blackand-white checked pattern on them. All loons have red eyes and long beaks.
Adults range from 2.2 to 13.8 pounds (1 to 6.3 kilograms) and measure about 3 feet (almost 1 meter) long. Males are slightly larger than females.
All species migrate (move region to region, seasonally) to warmer temperatures around the Gulf of Mexico and to the east and west coasts of North America during nonbreeding season. They also migrate to the Mediterranean Sea and coastal China. Alaska is the only region in which all five species can be found.
Loons can be found in inland lakes and tundra ponds. Less often they are seen in large freshwater lakes and rivers during the winter months.
Loons eat mostly medium-sized fish (7 to 8 inches, or 18 to 20 centimeters). Young loons are fed worms, mollusks, and crustaceans such as freshwater shrimp and crayfish.
Loons peer into the water, often with their bills submerged, and dive. Most food is eaten underwater, as loons can remain below the surface for more than a minute. Though most food is caught close to the surface, they may dive as deep as 230 feet (70 meters) if the water is clear enough. Loons eat a lot; a pair can consume 2,000 pounds (910 kilograms) of fish in one breeding season.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
The loon is famous for its vocalizations, which have been described as eerie and haunting. The type of sound—a cry, wail, cackle, or laugh—depends on the species. Vocalizing is usually done on the breeding ground.
Loons are awkward on land because their feet are set so far back on their bodies. In order to fly, they need a good deal of land from which to take off; larger loons need as much as a quarter-mile (400 meters) to get a good start. They are powerful flyers, though, and have been clocked at 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour).
Loons are monogamous (having just one mate) and mate for life, but are quick to replace that mate should it get lost. Both sexes build the nest, and they often return to that same nest every year. Nests are made of wet vegetation on land, or as a floating mat. Usually two eggs are laid, and parents work together to incubate them, or keep them warm. Incubation lasts twenty-four to thirty days. Chicks depend on parents for food but start diving on their own at three days old. In six to eight weeks, they can fly. Adult loons have few predators, but chicks make a fine meal for snapping turtles, eagles, gulls, and crows.
LOONS AND PEOPLE
People are attracted to loons because of the birds’ vocalizations. Thousands of tourists flock to the northwoods each year to hear the loons. In this way, loons are beneficial to the tourist industry of these regions. On the flip side, the other human activities involved in these vacations, such as canoeing, are threatening to the birds. When canoes hit the waters of Lake Superior, for example, the loons panic and over-react by abandoning their nests and any eggs in them. Often, they do not return, so the eggs die.
No species of loon is threatened.