Scientific Name: Gavia immer
Description: Common loons, with their eerie calls, are icons of northern lakes. These long-bodied birds are impressive swimmers and divers. They have solid bones, unlike the majority of bird species, which makes them less buoyant and more effective at maneuvering through the water. Their legs are set far back on their bodies, which helps them maneuver in the water but makes them move awkwardly on land. They typically only go ashore to nest. They have red eyes, which help them see under water to locate prey. They can stay underwater for up to five minutes. Common loons are skilled in flight, sometimes reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour. Their legs trail out behind them while in flight, a characteristic held by all loons. Adults have a black rounded head, pointed black bill, black and white barred neck, white breast, and a black-and-white checkered back during the summer breeding months. From September to March their coloration is gray with a white throat.
Size: 28-32 inches in length with a wingspan of about 46 inches. They can weigh between 9-12 pounds. Males are generally larger than females.
Diet: The common loon feeds primarily on fish. Common loons will often consume their prey underwater, instead of bringing it to the surface to eat. They will also eat a variety of other aquatic animals, such as crayfish and shrimp, and vegetation.
Predation: Adult loons are rarely prey for other species with the possible exception of sea otters and large raptors such as bald eagles and osprey, but their eggs and chicks are eaten by raccoons, ravens, bald eagles, minks, gulls, crows, snapping turtles, skunks, foxes, northern pike and muskies.
Typical Lifespan: Loons are thought to be long-lived birds, perhaps living as long as 30 years, but there is not enough information about loon survivorship to be certain.
Habitat: Found in and near lakes surrounded by forest during breeding season. During the winter they can be found on larger lakes and coastal marine habitats.
Range: Common loons breed on lakes in the northern United States, including Alaska, and Canada, migrating from northern lakes to coastal ocean waters for the winter.
Life History and Reproduction: Male and female common loons will prepare a nest of grasses and reeds together, in a sheltered location along the lakeshore or on an island near deep water where they can swim to and from the nest without alerting predators. They incubate 1-2 eggs for 26-30 days. Within hours of hatching, chicks are able to swim and ride on their parents’ backs. The nesting pair will often return to an existing nest the next year, instead of building a new one. Common loons are thought to be monogamous, having the same partner for life.
Fun Fact: Common loons have four different calls, each used for a different purpose. Learn more about their calls here. Also, because of their relatively heavy bodies, they need a long "runway" to take off for flight and can only do so from water.
North American common loon populations are stable overall. They depend on clean water in lakes and other bodies of water, and are sensitive to the effects of pollution and human disturbances. They have special conservation status in some states such as Michigan, where they are listed as threatened.
The Secret Lives of Loons, National Wildlife Magazine
USGS video “Unravelling the Mysteries of the Common Loon”
Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Michigan’s Special Animals, Michigan Natural Features Inventory
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Print.
USGS Loon Study, Frequently Asked Questions