Connections: Living with Loons

Summer is almost here and school (as we’ve recently known it) will be done soon.  For many people, summer in Maine means spending time in or near water.  With over 6,000 lakes and ponds to choose from, perhaps you’ll be finding yourself in the habitat of one of Maine’s most iconic bird species: the Common Loon.

Loons are aquatic birds, uniquely adapted to spending the majority of their lives on and underneath the water.  Following is a list of different body parts of a loon,  see if you can match the correct part with the sentence describing that part’s adaptation.  An adaptation is a specific function, either physical or behavioral, that helps an animal survive in their daily life.  Check your answers by doing some research to find out more on how these body parts are specifically adapted to help a loon survive in its environment (answer key at bottom):

1) Feet A: This can be a formidable weapon to both prey and foes.
2) Eyes B: Unlike most birds, in loons these structural pieces are solid, making them less buoyant.
3) Bills C: The “fancy” pattern of these camouflages this bird from above and below.
4) Air Sacks D: These rather large appendages enable this bird to move quickly underwater.
5) Feathers E: In the winter, these striking red orbs become more grayish.
6) Bones F: By regulating these, loons can sink or float.
Loons have big feet!
Loons have big feet!

Hopefully your research has given you a new appreciation for loons; they truly are amazing birds!  Of course, like many of us, loons are only seasonal residents of freshwater lakes and ponds.  Winter’s icy temperatures close this habitat to them for part of the year, so they must migrate to open water in the ocean.  Migration is the movement of animals from one place to another; typically on a seasonal basis.

The Incredible Loon Journey Board Game will help you appreciate some of the challenges faced during loon migration.  To play you’ll need:

  • Copy of the game board and challenge cards,
  • Game piece for each player (you can make up your own or use one from another game),
  • One die, or numbered spinner.

Directions:  1) Roll the die and move the number of spaces.  Follow the directions given on that space. If you land on a Migration Challenge card, follow the directions on the card.  2)  Pass the die to the next person, repeat.  3) At the end of the game count how many loons survived and how many did not.

Did you know that one of the greatest threats to loons are people?  People, and their pets, can easily disturb nesting loons and cause them to abandon their nests.  Strikes from motor boats on lakes can often be fatal.  And many loons die each year from swallowing lead fishing tackle, or by getting tangled in fishing line.  Most of these threats are unintentional, but nonetheless can have devastating impacts for these beautiful birds. 

 All of these things may sound grim, but the good news is that they are all preventable.  This summer YOU can help protect Maine’s loons by doing the following:

  • Keep family pets from running wild when near any lakes or ponds.
  • When out on a motorboat, keep an eye out for loons and slow down if any are spotted in the area.  While passing a shoreline, leave no wake (Loon nests can easily be flooded by a boat’s wake).
  • When out fishing, collect any broken line or lures and carry them home.  Use only lead-free sinkers and jigs.  Avoid fishing in areas where loons are nesting or feeding.
  • Contribute to loon research by participating in the annual Maine Audubon Loon Count, which happens each year on the third Saturday in July.
  • When you see a loon, watch from a comfortable distance.  If the loon starts to vocalize, back away. 

Speaking of vocalizations, loons are famous for their calls.  I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen that have used loon calls to evoke a feeling of being “out in the wild,” even if the particular movie setting would never have had loons living there.  Loons  have four main calls, these include:

Depending on the circumstances, loons have specific reasons for making their calls.

Wails are often used over distances to communicate between mated loon pairs.  The high-pitched tremolo, sometimes called a “laugh,” is a response to perceived threats and is given by loons that are agitated.  The yodel is a male specific call, used during territorial and defensive interactions.  My personal favorite is the hoot, a soft and short call used by loons when they are close together, often in a family unit.  Now that you know more about loon calls, you may be able to figure out what’s going on the next time you hear one.

Knowing about loons makes it more interesting when we encounter them in nature.  When you’re out on a lake or pond this summer, keep in mind that you are sharing that environment with the loons.  Maine Audubon has put together a pamphlet called Living in Loon Territory to help you (and your family and friends) be a better neighbor to loons.  Enjoy your summer and keep a watch out for loons!

Note to Teachers:

Maine Audubon has developed a Teacher’s Guide entitled Common Loons in the Classroom, which is a free online resource of activities and background information.

Answers: 1-D; 2-E; 3-A; 4-F: 5-C; 6-B