The haunting call of a loon is a favourite sound for many cottagers. While the sound may sound melancholy or even, well, loony, loons are actually anything but. Here, Bird Studies Canada’s Kathy Jones, the Ontario programs volunteer coordinator for the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey, shares 10 amazing facts about loons you may not have known.
According to Kathy Jones of Bird Studies Canada's Canadian Lakes Loon Survey, most species of loons are similarly "loon like." Loon species in Canada include the recognizable black and white Common Loon, the Red-throated Loon, the Pacific Loon, the Arctic Loon and the Yellow-billed Loon.
"Because they live in the water, have webbed feet and act like a diving duck, many people incorrectly assume that loons are ducks," says Jones, who is the Ontario programs volunteer coordinator for Bird Studies Canada's Canadian Lakes Loon Survey. In fact, the loon's body is different from a duck's: their feet are farther back on the body, they have longer bills, and sit lower in the water than ducks do.
Loons have four basic calls, which can also be shortened or combined. The wail call, which sounds like a wolf howl, is used when one loon wants to unite with another. Tremolo sounds, which resemble laughter, are given in response to a threat or while flying. (If you hear one while boating, make sure you're not too close to a nest.) The yodel is given only by males to defend territories, and each yodel is subtly unique. Finally, the hoot is a quiet call between close individuals, like a pair or adults with young.
"Loons are a great indicator of our lake and environmental health," says Jones. "If they have a healthy population and successfully produce young then our lake environments are healthy. If reproduction declines it may represent issues with our lake and environmental health." Threats to loons can be big issues that also impact other species, including humans. These can include climate change and pollution in the air and water from things like mercury or organic pollutants. The Canadian Lakes Loon Survey tracks population stability in loons, and while the population of Common Loons is stable, the number of young produced each year is trending downwards.
It turns out that humans aren't the only ones tormented by black flies. The appropriately named loon blackfly won't bite other water birds, like ducks or geese, and it won't attack humans, but it will swarm around loons. Swarms can be so bad that loons will abandon their nests.
According to Jones, the average Common loon can live to 30 -- that's longer than a Canada goose (24 years) or a Mallard duck (10 years).
"Loons' bones are really cool," says Jones. "They're solid, rather than air-filled like other birds." Loons' heavy bones reduce their buoyancy, which makes it easier for them to dive -- and they can dive as deep as 60 m.
Although no one is sure why, Common loons' eyes are bright red in the summer. They then change colour in the fall, fading to a dull reddish brown, while their plumage fades to grey.
"Loons put great energy into chick care," explains Jones. "They protect them from predators, feed them, carry the very young chicks on their backs and fend off other loons who might want their territory."
Bird Studies Canada lists six ways that cottagers and others can help loons. 1) Keep shorelines wild by letting native wetland plants grow. 2) Slow your boat down close to wetlands and shorelines. 3) Steer clear of loons, waterbirds and other wildlife. 4) Dispose of trash -- especially tackle and fishing line -- responsibly. 5) Reduce your contribution to climate change by using less electricity and fossil fuels. 6) And finally, get involved with your lake association, and participate in loon or lake monitoring, like the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey.