Friday, April 10, 2015

Birdlore: Common Loon, Spirit of the North

Imagine you are deep in the woods of the great north, wandering through the still trees and underbrush. 

The air is calm and quiet.  Sound doesn’t travel far in the dense forest.  A light fog lingers around you in the fading light.  As you push through the ferns and young trees, a clearing opens up to a calm and serene lake.  An eerie wail echoes across the flat water, sending a shiver down your back and drawing your attention to the center of the lake.

You've just entered the domain of the solitary Common Loon.

A typical Common Loon in breeding plumage (photo: the wikipedia files)

The common loon (Gavia immer) is a primitive bird species with a solid black head, red eyes, white ring around the neck, and colored with a black and white checkerboard pattern on their back (breeding plumage).  These water birds are found on lakes, rivers, large ponds, or estuaries in the northern wilderness during the breeding season.  They eat small fish for a living.

The loon is known for its haunting and beautiful calls which can be heard echoing across their watery habitat, especially at night.  They produce a tremolo when alarmed or announcing their presence on the lake.  Males give out a yodel to indicate their territory.   Lastly, the loon's wail, the most familiar and haunting call, is used to help determine a male and female's  location to each other. Click Here to hear the call of the Common Loon.

Common Loon swimming swiftly under the surface of a lake (photo: the wikipedia files)

The loon is also known as the Great Northern Diver in Britain, for their incredible diving and swimming ability.  This water bird has several adaptations lending to its superb skill. Their legs are situated to the rear of their body.  This allows for swift swimming underwater, but leaves the loon very clumsy and vulnerable on land.  Also, the loon is one of the few bird species with solid bones,  along with Puffins and Penguins, which helps them to sink more easily.  They also compress the interlocking pattern of their feathers to force out enclosed air before diving.  While under the water, loons will lower their heart rate to conserve oxygen.  The loon can dive without making a splash on the surface and reach a depth of 150 to 180 ft.

A Common Loon sitting on its nest near the water (photo: the wikipedia files)

Since the loon is so adapted to water, they are faced with equal disadvantages.  The rear legs of the loon are not suited to land, so they only go to shore to mate and nest.  Being a heavier bird, loons need to take a running start across open water for as much as a quarter mile to get airborne,  while at the same time flapping their wings.  Common loons can easily become stranded if they land in bodies of water that are too small. 

In the summer months, loons are spotted on the water's surface raising their feet to waggle them in the air.  Scientists believe this is done to help lower their body temperature.

The common loon often represents the northern wilderness's isolation and serene beauty with its own unique characteristics, haunting calls, and it's preference to live in remote quiet places away from humans.  

The Chippewa Indian tribe tells the following story of how, long ago, the whole world was covered in water.  One day the Great Spirit decided to make solid land for all the animals to rest on and live in.  The Great Spirit asked the animals if any of them would dive to the deep bottom to retrieve a little mud, so he could make the land.  Muskrat, otter, and beaver tried and failed.  Looking to the loon last, the Great Spirit asked if loon would dive as deep as he could.  Time passed and finally the loon surfaced, saddened.  He believed he had failed and waved his foot to the Great Spirit in farewell.  As he did so, mud appeared on the bottom of his foot and was enough for the Great Spirit to make the land.  Loon became a hero. 

To this day, when loons raise their feet and wave them in the air, they are remembering the hero of their species, the Loon Who Made the World.

If you wish to learn more about Common Loons or other water birds around the world, please stop by the World Bird Sanctuary and speak with one of our naturalists.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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