Great northern loon

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Great northern loon
Gavia immer -Minocqua, Wisconsin, USA -swimming-8.jpg
Adult in breeding plumage in Wisconsin, United States
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Gaviiformes
Family: Gaviidae
Genus: Gavia
Species: G. immer
Binomial name
Gavia immer
(Brunnich, 1764)
Gavia immer map.svg
Distribution of G. immer.
Not shown is the eastern part of the wintering range, which encompasses lakes and coastal areas down to Central Europe.

     Breeding range     Year-round range     Wintering range


Gavia imber

The great northern loon (Gavia immer), is a large member of the loon, or diver, family of birds. The species is known as the common loon in North America and the great northern diver in Eurasia; its current name is a compromise proposed by the International Ornithological Committee.[2]


The great northern loon is one of the five loon species that make up the genus Gavia, the only genus of the family Gavidae and order Gaviiformes. Its closest relative is the other large black-headed species, the yellow-billed loon or white-billed diver, Gavia adamsii.[3]

The genus name Gavia was the Latin term for the smew (Mergellus albellus). This small sea-duck is quite unrelated to loons and just happens to be another black-and-white seabird which swims and dives for fish. It is not likely that the Ancient Romans had much knowledge of loons, as these are limited to more northern latitudes and since the end of the last glacial period seem to have occurred only as rare winter migrants in the Mediterranean region.[4][5] The specific name immer is derived from North Germanic names for the bird such as modern Icelandic "Himbrimi".[6] The term is related to Swedish immer and emmer, the grey or blackened ashes of a fire, referring to its dark plumage; or to Latin immergo, to immerse, and immersus, submerged.[7]

The European name "diver" comes from the bird's habit of catching fish by swimming calmly along the surface and then abruptly plunging into the water. The North American name "loon" is a reference to the bird's clumsiness on land, and is derived from Scandinavian words for lame, such as Icelandic "lúinn" and Swedish "lam". Having large webbed feet, the loons are efficient predators, powerful swimmers, and adroit divers.


Breeding adult swimming on Gull Lake, Ontario, Canada
Nonbreeding adult or juvenile loon in Adirondacks.
Injured nonbreeding adult or juvenile loon on the beach at Core Banks
Nonbreeding adult or juvenile loon swimming underwater at Core Banks

Adults can range from 61 to 100 cm (24 to 39 in) in length with a 122–152 cm (48–60 in) wingspan, slightly smaller than the similar yellow-billed loon (or "white-billed diver"). The weight can vary from 1.6 to 8 kg (3.5 to 17.6 lb). On average, a great northern loon is about 81 cm (32 in) long, has a wingspan of 136 cm (54 in), and weighs about 4.1 kg (9.0 lb).

Breeding adults have a black head, white underparts, and a checkered black-and-white mantle. Non-breeding plumage is brownish, with the chin and foreneck white. The bill is black-blue and held horizontally. The bill colour and angle distinguish this species from the similar yellow-billed loon.

Bone structure: A number of solid bones (unlike normally hollow avian bones), which add weight but help in diving.[8]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The great northern loon breeds in North America, Greenland, Iceland, and Great Britain. This species winters on sea coasts or on large lakes of south Europe and North America, and south to north-western areas of Africa.[9]


Chicks will ride on their parents' backs
Flying in Vermont, United States

This species, like all divers, is a specialist fish-eater, catching its prey underwater, diving as deep as 60 m (200 ft).[8] and can remain underwater for as long as 3 minutes.[10] Freshwater diets consist of pike, perch, sunfish, trout, and bass; salt-water diets consist of rock fish, flounder, sea trout, and herring. The bird needs a long distance to gain momentum for take-off, and is ungainly on landing. Its clumsiness on land is due to the legs being positioned at the rear of the body: this is ideal for diving but not well-suited for walking. When the birds land on water, they skim along on their bellies to slow down, rather than on their feet, as these are set too far back. The loon swims gracefully on the surface, dives as well as any flying bird, and flies competently for hundreds of kilometres in migration. It flies with its neck outstretched, usually calling a particular tremolo that can be used to identify a flying loon. Its flying speed is as much as 120 km/h (75 mph) during migration.[8] Its call has been alternately called "haunting", "beautiful", "thrilling", "mystical", and "enchanting".[11][12]

Great northern loon nests are usually placed on islands, where ground-based predators cannot normally access them. However, eggs and nestlings have been taken by gulls, corvids, raccoons, skunks, minks, foxes, snapping turtles, and large fish. Adults are not regularly preyed upon, but have been taken by sea otters (when wintering) and bald eagles.[13] Ospreys have been observed harassing divers, more likely out of kleptoparasitism than predation.[14] When approached by a predator of either its nest or itself, divers sometimes attack the predator by rushing at it and attempting to impale it through the abdomen or the back of the head or neck.


The female lays one to three eggs on a hollowed-out mound of dirt and vegetation very close to water. Both parents build the nest, sit on the egg or eggs, and feed the young.


Loons produce a variety of vocalizations, the most common of which are categorized into four main types: the tremolo, the yodel, the wail, and the hoot. Each of these calls communicates a distinct message.

The frequency at which loons vocalize has been shown to vary based on time of day, weather, and season. They are most vocally active between mid-May and mid-June. The wail, yodel, and tremolo calls are sounded more frequently at night than during the day, and calls have also been shown to occur more frequently in cold temperatures and when there is little to no rain. [15]

The Tremolo

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The tremolo call—sometimes called the “laughing” call—is characterized by its short, wavering quality. Loons often use this call to signal distress or alarm caused by territorial disputes or perceived threats. [15] Loons also use the tremolo to communicate their presence to other loons when they arrive at a lake, often when they are flying overhead. It is the only vocalization used in flight. [16]

The tremolo call has varying levels of intensity and can be identified as type I, II, or III. These levels correlate with a loon’s level of distress, and the types are differentiated by increasingly higher pitch frequencies added to the call. [17]

The Yodel

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The yodel is a long and complex call made only by male loons. It is used in the establishment of territorial boundaries and in territorial confrontations, and the length of the call corresponds with the loon's level of aggression. [18] Every male loon has a unique yodel, which changes if the loon changes territory. [19]

The Wail

A loon’s wail is a long call consisting of up to three notes, and is often compared to a wolf’s howl. Loons use this call to communicate their location to other loons. The call is given back and forth between breeding pairs or an adult and their chick, either to maintain contact or in an attempt to move closer together after being separated. [16]

The Hoot

The hoot is a short, soft call and is another form of contact call. It is a more intimate call than the wail and is used exclusively between small family groups or flocks. [15] Loons hoot to let other family or flock members know where they are. This call is often heard when adult loons are summoning their chicks to feed. [16]

Relationship with humans[edit]

Nest near water in Maine, United States

These birds have disappeared from some lakes in eastern North America due to the effects of acid rain and pollution, as well as lead poisoning from fishing sinkers and mercury contamination from industrial waste. Artificial floating nesting platforms have been provided for loons in some lakes to reduce the impact of changing water levels due to dams and other human activities.

The great northern loon is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies.

In popular culture[edit]

This bird is well known in Canada, appearing on the one-dollar "loonie" coin and the previous series of $20 bills, and is the provincial bird of Ontario. Also, it is the state bird of Minnesota and appears on the Minnesota State Quarter.

The voice and appearance of the great northern loon has made it prominent in several Native American tales. These include a story of a loon which created the world in a Chippewa story; a Micmac saga describes Kwee-moo, the loon who was a special messenger of Glooscap (Glu-skap), the tribal hero; native tribes of British Columbia believed that an excess of calls from this bird predicted rain, and even brought it; and the tale of the loon's necklace was handed down in many versions among Pacific Coast peoples. Folk names include big loon, black-billed loon, call-up-a-storm, ember-goose, greenhead, guinea duck, imber diver, ring-necked loon, and walloon.

This bird is central to the plot of the novel Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome (in which it is referred to throughout as great northern diver, with the obsolete scientific name Colymbus immer). The story is set in the Outer Hebrides, where the main characters—a group of children on holiday—notice a pair of divers apparently nesting there. Checking their bird book, they believe this to be the great northern diver; however, this has not previously been seen to nest in northern Scotland, and so they ask for help from an ornithologist. He confirms that these birds are indeed the great northern; unfortunately, it soon transpires that he does not wish merely to observe, but wants to steal the eggs and add them to his collection; and to do this, he must first kill the birds. Published in 1947, the story is one where the conservationists are the eventual victors over the egg collector, at a time when the latter hobby was not widely considered to be harmful.[20][21]



  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Gavia immer". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Gill, F., Wright, M. & Donsker, D. (2009). IOC World Bird Names (version 2.2). Accessed 24 November 2009
  3. ^ Boertmann, D. (1990). "Phylogeny of the divers, family Gaviidae (Aves)". Steenstrupia 16: 21–36. 
  4. ^ Brodkorb, Pierce (1964). "Catalogue of fossil birds. Part 1 (Archaeopterygiformes through Ardeiformes)". Bulletin of the Florida State Museum, Biological Sciences 7 (4): 179–293. 
  5. ^ Arnott, W.G. (1964). "Notes on Gavia and Mergvs in Latin Authors." Classical Quarterly". (New Series) 14 (2): 249–262. doi:10.1017/s0009838800023806. 
  6. ^ Eriksson, Mats O.G. (2000). "Loons / divers - names -myths – Scandinavian perspective". Wetlands International Diver/Loon Specialist Group Newsletter (3): 5. 
  7. ^ Paul Johnsgard (1987) Diving Birds of North America. University of Nebraska Press. (Appendix 1)
  8. ^ a b c "The Uncommon Loon". Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved 2 June 2013. 
  9. ^ "Great Northern Diver Gavia immer". Divers. British Trust for Orinthology. Retrieved 12 August 2012. 
  10. ^ Dan A. Tallman, David L. Swanson, Jeffrey S. Palmer (2002). Birds of South Dakota. Midstates/Quality Quick Print. p. 3. ISBN 0-929918-06-1. 
  11. ^ "Northwestern Ontario Bird Species - Common Loon". Retrieved 2011-10-24. 
  12. ^ Feinman, 2010.
  13. ^ "ADW: Gavia immer: Information". 2004-10-06. Retrieved 2011-10-24. 
  14. ^ "The Science Behind Algonquin's Animals - Research Projects - Common Loon". Retrieved 2011-10-24. 
  15. ^ a b c Mennill, Daniel J. (2014). "Variation in the Vocal Behavior of Common Loons (Gavia mimer): Insights from Landscape-level Recordings". Waterbirds 37 ((sp1)): 26–36. doi:10.1675/063.037.sp105. 
  16. ^ a b c "Vermont Fish & Wildlife". Vermont Fish and Wildlife. 
  17. ^ Barklow, William E. (1979). "Graded Frequency Variations of the Tremolo Call of the Common Loon (Gavia immer)". The Condor 81 (1): 53–64. doi:10.2307/1367857. 
  18. ^ Mager III, John N.; Walcott, Charles; Piper, Walter H. (2012). "Male Common Loons Signal Greater Aggressive Motivation by Lengthening Territorial Yodels". Wilson Journal of Ornithology 124 (1): 73–80. doi:10.1676/11-024.1. 
  19. ^ "Common Loon". The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 
  20. ^ McGinnis, Molly (February 2004). "Totem Animals in Swallows & Amazons: Great Northern?". All Things Ransome. Retrieved 26 March 2010. 
  21. ^ Cornett, Michael (16 April 2008). "Great Northern?: A Scottish Adventure of Swallows & Amazons". Retrieved 26 March 2010. 

General references[edit]

External links[edit]