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Facts about Loons

Characteristics

Q. How did the loon get its name?

A. Interestingly, the word loony is NOT related to the word loon! Loony comes from lunatic, a word that comes from lunar, because long ago some people believed that a full moon made people go crazy. Despite calls that make it sound maniacal, the word loon actually comes from a Shetland Islands word loom, which comes from the Icelandic word lomr and the Swedish word lom, which both refer to someone who is lame or clumsy. Loons were called this because of how awkward and clumsy they appear on land.

Q. What is the Common Loon's scientific name and how is it classified?

A. The loon belongs to

  • Kingdom Animalia
  • Phylum Chordata
  • Subphylum Vertebrata
  • Class Aves
  • Order Gaviiformes
  • Family Gaviidae
  • Genus Gavia (which comes from "gull" in Latin--no one knows why Johann Forster, who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage and named the loon, named it for a gull.)
  • Species immer (which comes from "diver" in Latin [immer is related to "immerse."])

Its scientific name is a combination of the genus and species names, or Gavia immer.

Q. Do males and females have the same plumage?

A.
Yes.

Q. Why do loons have red eyes?

A.
Dr. Judith McIntyre, who wrote the book Common Loon: Spirit of Northern Lakes, told Journey North science writer Laura Erickson that loon eyes are brilliant red probably to be attractive to the opposite sex and to be seen across a lake by other loons--it probably helps them to defend their territories the way the red epaulets help red-winged blackbirds defend their territories. During winter, when loons are not involved with mating or territorial activities, their eyes lose much of the color and become a dull reddish-brown.

Q. What are a loon's air sacs?

A. Bird lungs are flat and close to their back ribs. When they breathe in, air goes through the lungs into huge air sacs that are balloon-like stretchy membranes that go into the wing bone (humerus) and much of the body cavity.

Q. How might a loon's air sacs determine how high or low in the water the loon was swimming?

A.
When a loon fills the air sacs with air, its body becomes much less dense, and more buoyant, allowing it to swim high in the water. As it forces air out of the sacs, its body becomes more and more dense, and it sinks lower and lower into the water.

Q. Why do loons have such small wings when they have such big bodies?

A.
For loons to dive and chase fish underwater without popping back up like a cork, their wings are as small as possible. The wings help propel them through the water, and to turn as fast as lightning while chasing prey.


Q. Are loons good fliers?

A.
Yes. They are strong fliers, and can fly up to 70 miles per hour. To stay aloft on such small wings, loons must beat their wings fast and steady, and virtually never soar or glide even for a moment.


Q. Why do loons need to run for take off?

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 aren't loons found on small lakes or ponds?

A.
Loons need lakes larger than nine to ten acres in size because it's hard for them to take off a fly on small bodies of water. A loon must run across the surface of the water for up to a quarter of a mile before the frantic beating of its wings can lift it aloft. This is because its legs are placed so far back on its body, and because it is a large bird. Landing is tough for loons, too. Their feet cannot be brought forward enough to be used as landing skiis, as other web-footed birds do. Loons usually just hit the water-often hard and without much grace!


Q. How fast can a loon fly?

A.
Loons have been clocked going 62 m.p.h. air speed, and one stayed ahead of a small airplane going 80 - 100 m.p.h. Except along the Great Lakes they migrate so high and so fast their passage goes almost unnoticed, says author Paul Kerlinger (How Birds Migrate, Stackpole Books, 1995). According to his estimates, loons migrate 3,000-5,000 feet high and fly with air speeds usually exceeding 40 mph. But with the help of tailwinds they can travel more than 75 mph--and some people estimate as fast as 100 mph!


Q. Why are loons silent in the winter in the south?

A.
Although loons have been heard giving yodels and tremolos on the wintering grounds, it is not common. It probably is because the hormone levels in loons are not high enough (i.e., they don't feel a need to defend a territory) to bring about calling. Besides that, loons spend more time in groups during the winter, so the long distance calls like yodels and wails are not needed. They can communicate with quiet hoots to one another.

 

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