Dave Evers
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  • Answers From The Loon Expert

    Dr. F.G. Irwin
    Terry Daulton
    Staff Biologist
    Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute
    Northland College
    Ashland, Wisconsin

    From: IOWA

    Q. Our question about the loon is: how far(long) can they fly at one period of time?

    A. To my knowledge there is no definitive information on how far loons fly without stopping. They have been clocked at up to 90 miles per hour and we know that they migrate considerable distances ( such as Wisconsin to Florida) but they do stop en route to feed and rest.
    Amanda Stearns
    Jefferson-Scranton Middle School

    From: FLORIDA

    Q. What is the life spand of the common loon?

    A. We believe that loons live to about 20-25 years although there are many possible causes of death at earlier ages. Until recent years, it has been difficult to track individual loons and determine ages because we had no way to capture and mark birds. David Evers, a loon researcher who was working in Upper Michigan in the late 1980's and early 1990's developed a capture and banding technique which has allowed us to color mark and band loons. We hope to have more information on ages of birds as our marked birds are observed or collected after death.

    Q. How far does the common loon migrate and where does it go in the spring and fall? Also, what habitats are they usually found in?

    A. Common loons migrate from their summer nesting habitats (on inland freshwater lakes) to wintering grounds on the oceans. Although individual birds may take different routes, in general loons in the northeastern U.S. (Maine, New Hampshire, etc.) migrate to the northern coasts of the Atlantic Ocean. Loons from the Upper Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota) migrate through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic ocean or down the Mississippi Flyway to the Gulf of Mexico. Loons on the west coast migrate west to the Pacific Ocean. Loons from Canada also follow a variety of routes to the oceans. In the spring, loons return to nesting lakes which are typically clear clean lakes in northern states or Canada. They require adequate fish populations, undisturbed shorelines for nesting locations and quiet bays for chick rearing.

    Q. What does their diet consists of?

    A: Loons primarily eat fish The average prey size is about 5-7 inches but they can eat much larger fish as well. Their favorite food items include perch, suckers, bullheads, sunfish, and minnows. They also eat some amphibians, crustaceans, and invertebrates.
    Largo High School


    Q. How do you get tags on the loons to track them? Seth

    A: In order to band loons, you must of course be able to capture and handle the birds. The method that researchers are using now is to go out at night with a small boat and outboard motor. The boat holds three people to run a large light, a tape recorder, and a big fish net. In the spring when the loons have chicks you can lure the adult birds near the boat by playing a loon call. When the loons come to investigate the "strange bird" on their lake you shine the light in their eyes and slowly motor up to the bird. Then you dip the net under the bird and pick it up into the boat. We then take the loon back to shore and put metal Fish and Wildlife Service bands on their led (with an identification number) using a pliers. We also put colored leg bands on the bird so we can see them from a distance and identify which bird it is without having to capture them again. For example we might mark a bird with a red band over blue band on the left leg. This marking method has been very successful and safe for the loons as well.

    Q. Why do loons have to run across the water to fly? Mario

    A: Loons are a relatively heavy bird because their bodies are designed for diving. They have nearly solid bones while most other birds have hollow bones. While their weight is helpful in swimming and diving it makes it hard for them to take off and fly. For this reason they need to run on the water, somewhat like a airplane taking off on a runway.

    Q. Why do the young loons fight? Kyle

    A: Young loons fight to establish a "pecking order" or dominance between the chicks. Loon chicks hatch 24 hours apart and often the first chick to hatch is slightly bigger and is dominant. This means that when the parents bring food the bigger chick is more likely to get fed. While this may seem cruel to the smaller "brother or sister" it is a survival mechanism. If the loon parents don't bring enough food for both chicks the larger dominant chick is likely to survive rather than both chicks being weaker and more vulnerable.
    Belle Plaine 0716bpel@informns.k12.mn.us

    From: VERMONT

    Q. If you were able to take care of a loon with permission, would you be allowed to try to tame it? And if so, would it let you touch it? Erica

    A: There are a few people who have kept loons in captivity. Mostly loons are "taken care of" at animal rehabilitation centers if they have been injured or are sick. These birds are treated and the goal is to release them to the wild again. The Minnesota Zoo has had the most intensive loon rearing program. They raised several loon chicks but were not able to keep the young bird alive to adulthood. Loons do not appear to do well in captivity. There are also a few stories of people who have "tamed " loons on their lake. This is an unusual situation and in the few instances it has occurred the loons are not tame enough to be touched.

    Q. Where can you find loons in the U.S.? Autumn

    A: Most nesting loons in the U.S. are found in Minnesota, Maine, Wisconsin, Michigan, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Montana, Idaho and Washington State. The majority are found in Minnesota, Maine and Wisconsin. In the winter and during migration you can find loons along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as well as on inland lakes along migration routes. For example, Walker Lake in Nevada has a large number of loons during parts of the winter.

    Q. How long can loons stay underwater? Matt D.

    A. The average length of a loon dive is about one minute but they have been recorded underwater for 10 to 15 minutes. This however was when the loon was disturbed and was extreme.
    Academy School


    Q. Do Loons have the same mate from year to year?

    A. Loons are actually more attached to their nesting lake than to a specific loon partner. In the past many people and researchers believed that loons mated for life, but recent studies have shown that loons do switch partners from year to year. In fact, Dr. Walter Piper has been studying loons in the Rhinelander, Wisconsin area and has found that loons even switch mated within nesting seasons. For example, if the loon pair's first nest fails, the female loon may renest with another adult male bird the same season.

    Q. How many baby loons do they have?

    A. In general, loons lay 1-2 eggs per pair and hatch 1-2 chicks. It is very rare to have three eggs or chicks. In Wisconsin the average production of chicks is about .7 chicks per pair.

    Q. How long does the average loan live?

    A: See answer above.

    Q. How do loons mate?

    A: Loons usually mate on the nest site. It is a quick process. The male loon will approach the nest site and give a quiet call. If the female is interested, she will approach and climb onto the nest. The the male will climb on top of her and copulation occurs. It only takes a few moments and then he drops into the water. They sometimes call after copulation.

    Q. Why do they have red eyes?

    A: While no one is exactly sure why loons have red eyes it is thought that the red coloration is part of their breeding plummage and is an attraction for mating. Loons molt their "nuptual plummage" with the blakc and white markings in winter. Their eyes also fade to a brown color at that time.

    Q. What is the primary diet?

    A: see above.

    Q. Do the white spots mean something?

    A: The white and black plummage of loons is their breeding plummage. In winter loons molt to a dull grey and white plummage which does not have the elaborate patterns of summer. Immature loons are also this dull grey and white color. The striking breeding plummage is like that of many other spring bird plummages (such as the colors of warblers) and is thought to be a strategy for attracting a mate.

    Q. Do they see underwater well?

    A: Loons are visual feeders which means that they need to see their underwater prey to be able to capture it. For this reason they need fairly good vision and clear water. Loons have difficulty capturing prey on lakes with heavy algae blooms or very dark staining. But they seem to be able to live in stained lakes (such as bog lakes) more easily than on polluted lakes where algae and sediments cloud their vision.
    Laona High School
    Biology Class
    Laona, Wisconsin