All of my life I have had the joy of being in the north woods in the summer. One of the great contributors to the wonders of the north is the loon. There are four species of loons (divers in the UK/Ireland)--the arctic, red-throated, yellow-billed, and the common loon (pictured) which is the species with which I am familiar. Their haunting cries are almost impossible to describe. Some call it a wail, some a howl, but in reality the loons have several calls and no human words can describe the calls adequately. The cry of the loon and the howl of the wolf are the two sounds most associated with the north.

The first mystery of the loon is the fact that it is a sea bird. In January, you will find loons in a pack or flock at night in oceans on both coasts of North America and the Gulf Coast. They are also found across the Atlantic from Norway to Algeria. Instead of having hollow bones as most birds do, loons have solid bones, making flight difficult but ideally suited for swimming. Loons can dive to 200 feet and stay submerged for several minutes, but they can also stick their bills out of the water and stay submerged if they sense danger. Their diet is fish, and in the ocean they have a virtually infinite food supply.

Loons are covered with down to keep them warm but the down is covered with contour feathers which have a central shaft with barbed filaments that zip together. Once oiled, the zipped feathers form a watertight cover which sheds water and keeps the down dry. The blood vessels in the upper legs avoid heat loss. The legs and body are covered with a layer of subcutaneous fat insulating the bird against the coldest ocean water. This is a bird ideally suited to live in the ocean.

When spring comes, a strange change takes place in loons. The loons molt, shedding their gray feathers and growing black ones. The loons have been flightless throughout the winter, but now stiff wing feathers come through as the molt occurs and the birds begin to exercise, building muscle and feather strength that will allow flight. After two months of this process, the birds suddenly in March through June, travel north many hundreds of miles to a fresh water lake in the far north of the United States and Canada. Sometimes in spring you will hear loons calling to each other as they fly at times 1,500 feet in the air.

Why should the loons leave the ocean? There is an abundant food supply, and there are many suitable places to lay eggs and raise young. No massive change to allow flight would be necessary if the loons stayed in their marine environment. There are many dangers and risks involved in making such a long journey, and the reproductive risks are huge. If the eggs are not laid quickly, hatched quickly, and the babies brought to maturity quickly, the winter freeze may come before the babies can fly. Those of us who have lived in the far north have seen baby loons frozen into the ice or snow because they did not meet these time demands. Even the methods of navigation which bring loons back to the same lake year after year involve considerable complexity.

Scientists are only beginning to understand why the loons migrate. One obvious reason is nesting sites. The loon is incredibly awkward on land, and in the north they can nest a few inches above quiet water with no tides to interfere. Their exodus from the ocean relieves pressure on fish populations in marine coastal areas, and controls fish populations in fresh water lakes. The loon is incredibly well-designed to fill a niche in the ecosystem that no other life form fills. The complexity of this design is so high that it stretches credibility to attribute it to chance and survival of the fittest. The mystery of the loon is one more testimony to the intelligence built into all we see in the world around us.

Source: The Loon: Voice of the Wilderness, by Joan Dunning, Yankee Books, 1985, ISBN: 0-89909-080-X

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