Loons, our symbol of the north
There is no one among us who doesn’t recognize the common loon as the poster child of our Labrador waterways. They represent the sights and sounds of the solitude and wild nature of where we live.
When we see, and hear, the sounds of the loons it’s the sure fire signal that represents the arrival of spring on our northern waterways. No matter when we are at our cabins or out on the water, or how many times we have heard their haunting sound as they sing out to each other, it stops us in our tracks. It represents the North and defines in some way, who we are as Canadians.
The loons will arrive in pairs in the spring as soon as the ice is melted. They usually prefer smaller lakes and are solitary nesters. Most of our smaller lakes will usually support just one pair of loons while larger lakes will often see more than one pair with individual pairs occupying individual bays or different portions of the lake.
Up until recently it was thought that loons mated for life but recent studies have shown that loons will sometimes switch mates after a failed nesting attempt, even during the same season.
Loons will construct their nest close to the water. Their legs are located further back on the body of the bird which helps them in streamlining their bodies for swimming but makes it more difficult for walking, so many times being close and completely surrounded by water offers easiest access and protection from predators. Islands, muskrat houses, or half submerged logs provide ideal locations. Researchers have found tree needles, leaves, grass and moss under the eggs on the nests. Many nests are used on the same sites year after year.
Both the male and the female help in nest building efforts and with the incubation of the eggs, which usually lasts between 26 to 31 days. Usually two eggs are laid as early in June as the season will allow. After the incubation period is complete, the loon chicks will appear on the water covered in brown to black down. Although the chicks can swim right away, they will spend time resting on their parent’s backs and to conserve heat as well as to avoid predators. It is only a couple of days and the chicks will not return to their nest.
The chicks are fed exclusively by their parents for the first few weeks of their life consisting of aquatic vegetation, minnows and small fish. As they grow, they require more protein and are usually fed more fish. By migration time, the young are able to look after themselves.
Many of the loons bones are solid rather than hollow like most birds. This aids in their ability to dive and swim more efficiently and allows them to go deeper and with their large webbed feet which allows them to cover greater distances during their dives. This adaptation also sees the loon requiring more water surface to take to wing. They are heavier and appear to run across the surface of the water and depending on the wind will require more or less distance to achieve lift off of the surface.
These birds are predators and prefer a summer diet of fish to any other food. They require significant amounts of protein for growth and the strength and stamina necessary for migration. These loons have been clocked at 120 kilometres per hour during their migration flights.
All loons are protected by federal law and may not be hunted. At the end of the day it’s in their DNA to migrate north to join us each spring and it seems that it is somehow in our DNA to stop and enjoy their beauty and haunting cries. We are both, truly Canadian.