There are many types of water birds, including loons, ducks, grebes, and geese. They are quite similar in appearance and characteristics, which is why you may be wondering if they are classified under the same family. Because loons live in the water, act like a diving duck, and have webbed feet, many people incorrectly assume that they are ducks.
In fact, they belong to a completely different family, and their bodies are quite different from that of a duck. Unlike ducks, the Common Loon has a striking black-and-white checkered back, white belly, glossy black head, and a distinct white necklace around the throat in the summer. In the winter, all loons have greyish feathers. The inner part of the wings and belly are white year-round.
What is the Difference Between a Loon and a Duck?
Loons and ducks belong to two different families – loons are categorized under the family Gaviidae, while ducks are in the family Anatidae. Another feature that can be used to distinguish the loon from a duck is the feet. Loons have feet that are placed far back on their bodies which allows them to swim low in the water, unlike ducks.
Loons also have a heavier bone structure than ducks and bear a closer resemblance to the grebes. In flight, loons can be distinguished from other waterfowl by their humpbacked profile, with their neck and head held low and feet pressed backward towards their bodies and projecting beyond their tails.
5 Different Types of Loons
There are five main types of loons in North America:
Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata)
The Red-throated loon gets its name from a triangular patch of chestnut-red that is found on its throat. It is the smallest of the loon species at about 55 to 67 cm in length. Its neck and head are soft slate-grey, and the back of its neck has distinct fine white lines. Its back and wings are brownish grey with little marking, and its underparts are white.
Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)
This is a species of loon that breeds in the tundra lakes of northern Canada. It is slightly bigger than the Red-throated loon, with a length ranging from 58 to 74 cm. The head and hind neck of this species of loon are pearl-grey and the throat and under neck are black. The upper breast of the Pacific Loon features streaks of white lines, and the underparts of the bird are silvery white. The upper back and back of the wings feature distinct white squares arranged in lines that form four patterns.
Arctic Loon (Gavia arctica)
The Arctic loon is also known as the black-throated diver in Eurasia. The bird is typically 58 to 77 cm in length. Two subspecies of this loon are recognized: the Gavia arctica viridigularis and the Gavia arctica arctica. The bird breeds in western Alaska and Eurasia and migrates towards the large lakes, coastal areas, and the open sea for wintering.
Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii)
This is the largest species of loon bird. The Yellow-billed loon breeds in the Arctic region and spends winters along Norway’s northwestern parts and North Pacific Ocean’s coasts. It has a black head, a checkered black-and-white mantle, and white underparts. The plumage of this loon is typically drabber in the non-breeding season.
Common Loon (Gavia immer)
Also known as the great northern diver, the Common Loon lives in the lakes and other aquatic habitats across the northern USA and Canada. The common loon ranges in size from 61-100 cm. During the breeding season, adults have white underparts and a black head. The bird’s plumage is checkered black-and-white and the bill is black-blue.
How Long Do Loons Live?
The loon is a long-lived bird, with many individuals known to reach their mid-20s. On average, the life expectancy of this bird may be 15 to 30 years.
Why Do Loons Have Red Eyes?
The red in the loon’s eyes is caused by a pigment in the retina that filters light when the bird dives beneath the water surface and allows them to see.
What Type of Feet Do Loons Have?
Loons have large webbed feet that provide propulsion and help them to steer underwater.
Do Loons Have Solid Bones?
Loons have bones that are more solid than those of most other flying birds. These solid bones make loons less buoyant, which aids in their diving ability.
Do Loons Return to the Same Lake?
Loons are known to be territorial, returning annually to the same lake to breed. All five species of loons migrate to warmer areas on the east and west coasts of American and around the Gulf of Mexico for the nonbreeding season and return to the northern lakes to breed when the ice melts in spring.
What Do Loons Do in the Winter?
In the winter, loons migrate to escape lakes that have frozen over. Adult loons typically migrate first in large groups, usually, 2-3 months after their chicks hatch and their black and white plumage turns brownish-grey. The offspring stay behind and only leave their birth lake just before it freezes.
How Far Can a Loon Fly in a Day?
How far a loon can fly depends on the individual. In one documented case, a loon flew 670 miles within 24 hours. In another case, a loon flew a distance of 360 and 505 miles during 2 consecutive days. All of these flights are believed to be single movements.
How Long Can Loons Stay Underwater?
Loons can stay underwater for up to five minutes. As they dive, their feathers are compressed and the air is forced from between their feathers and air sacs. Loss of air from the air sacs allows the loon to sink below the water surface with ease.
How Deep Can Loons Dive?
A loon’s solid bones allow it to dive to depths of 250 feet to search for food.
How Fast Can Loons Swim?
The speed at which a loon swims varies depending on who you ask. Various sources have recorded the speed as being anywhere from 9 miles per hour to 20 miles per hour.
Can Loons See Underwater?
Loons have excellent underwater vision and are usually able to chase and catch prey pretty far beneath the water surface. That said, they typically prefer to stay near the water’s surface where the light is best.
When Do Loons Have Babies?
The female loon usually lays two eggs in May or June, and both parents take turns to incubate the eggs for about four weeks until they hatch.
How Many Babies Do Loons Have?
In general, loons lay 1 or 2 eggs per nest attempt. It is almost unheard of to have three eggs or chicks. Eggs are laid 1-3 days apart and are incubated for about 4 weeks on average. The chicks hatch 12-24 hours apart.
What Color are Loon Eggs?
Loon eggs are olive-green to brown and often feature brown spots. This color ensures that they are well camouflaged in the nest if the parent goes off to bathe or in search of food.
Do Loons Carry Their Babies on Their Backs?
Although baby loons instinctively know how to swim within a few hours of being born, they still hitch a ride on their parents’ backs. Like any other baby bird, baby loons, otherwise known as nestlings, are unable to regulate their body temperatures. It takes several days for baby loons to master the ability to stay warm on their own. For several days after they hatch, they swim only for short periods and then climb back up on their parent’s backs.
Do Loons Kill Their Babies?
Loons don’t kill their babies. Adult loons typically provide high levels of parental care to their nestlings until they reach fledgling age (typically around 11-12 weeks of age). Because of this extended period of care, loons will only have one brood of chicks per year.
Why Do Loons Abandon Their Eggs?
Several factors can cause loons to abandon their eggs:
- Fluctuating water levels can interfere with nesting success. High levels of water can flood the nest, while low levels of water make it harder for loons to slip on and off the nest without catching the attention of predators.
- Human activity can also cause loons to abandon their eggs.
- Predation can also affect nesting success. Areas with a high number of predators like skunks, raccoons, otters, minks, snapping turtles, birds of prey, or crows are more likely to have incidences of loons abandoning their eggs.
- Mass numbers of insects can drive loons off their nests. In Wisconsin, for example, 70% of loon nests were abandoned because of a swarm of black flies pestering and nipping at the birds.
- High mercury levels and lead poisoning can interfere with the ability of loons to take care of their chicks.
Are Loons Nocturnal?
Very little is known about the nocturnal activity of loons. Studies have shown that they typically don’t forage at night, opting to spend the majority of their time resting. That said, they are just as active locomoting during the night as they are during the day.
Are Loons Territorial?
Both male and female loons are territorial. When a female loon intrudes on an existing territory, the resident female will battle while the male passively watches. When a male loon is scouting a potential territory, it often flies over the lake giving a vocalization known as the flying tremolo. The resident male typically responds with a yodel, its territorial proclamation.
Are Loons Migratory?
Loons are medium-distance migratory birds. Common loons migrate from northern lakes to coastal ocean waters. Loons in Alaska and Canada migrate to the Pacific Coast, from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands down past Baja Peninsula.
Loons from the Great Lakes region typically migrate to the Florida coasts or the Gulf of Mexico. Loons from eastern Canada typically migrate to the Atlantic Coast.
Do Loons Mate for Life?
Despite the popular belief that loons mate for life, banding studies have shown that loons occasionally do switch mates or territories. When a loon in a pair dies, the remaining member will find another mate. Furthermore, another loon or pair may intrude on a territory, and one or both birds could be displaced.
Why Do Loons Cry at Night?
The loon wail is frequently heard at night for several reasons:
- The wail is mostly used for long-distance communication between mated pairs of loons.
- Loon pairs may also wail to another at night as they begin to engage with an intruding loon.
- Loons can also cry at night when encountering a perceived threat to their nest or chicks.
Can a Loon Walk?
Loons can walk, but they are very clumsy. This is because their legs are located far to the rear of their bodies.
How Big a Fish Can a Loon Eat?
Loons typically eat fish weighing 10-70 grams. They usually eat prey that they catch underwater, although they will often bring food to the surface to feed their chicks, and sometimes also large fish to subdue them before eating them.
Adult loons, especially large males, occasionally catch a large fish (up to 250-300 grams). Fish this big are difficult for loons to deal with. A full-grown sucker, for example, can take a couple of minutes for a loon to subdue and swallow. The loon may drop the fish and repeatedly dive after it, stabbing at it with it until the fish is subdued.
Are Loons Good for a Lake?
Loons are good for a lake ecosystem as they are an essential part of the food chain. A loon’s diet consists of fish such as bluegill, yellow perch, pumpkinseed, catfish, suckers, minnows, and smelt. They also feed on snails, crayfish, leeches, and frogs. By feeding upon these different species, they help to keep their populations in the lake in check, subsequently maintaining the ecosystem.
Do Loons Have Predators?
Adult loons have few predators, although bald eagles have been reported to attack incubating birds. Attacks by sharks in winter have also been documented. When a potential predator approaches the loon or its nest, the bird sometimes attacks the predator by rushing towards it and trying to stab it with its bill, aiming to land blows either at the predator’s head, neck, or abdomen, which may be deadly to predators up to the size of a raccoon or fox.
Loon eggs are taken by several animals, including striped skunk, raccoons, foxes, otters, American mink. Birds such as American crows, northern ravens, and herring gulls will eat unattended eggs. Nestlings may be attacked and killed by large gulls, common snapping turtles, largemouth bass, northern pike, and bald eagles.
Do Loons Go in Saltwater?
During the winter, loons migrate to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Once they reach the ocean, they must adapt to life in saltwater. Loons have salt glands in their skull located between their eyes that remove the salt from the water and fish that they eat and excrete it from the ducts found in their beak.
Will Loons Eat Baby Ducks?
Loons don’t eat ducklings. That said, they are very territorial and will attack adult ducks and even Canada Geese using underwater stealth.
Can You Hunt Loons?
In the past, loons could be hunted, but as their populations declined, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. As a result, it’s illegal to kill migratory birds like loons as they are protected by the Act.