Loons, our sym­bol of the north

The Labradorian - - Editorial - Gary Shaw

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.

PHOTO BY GARY SHAW

A loon

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