COMMON LOON – (Gavia immer)
The Common loon is a diving bird that can swim long distances under water in search of fish. Loons are excellent divers and have webbed feet. The common loon is rather large, at a length of about 90 cm (35 in.). The bill is long and sharp. The eyes are red. The head is black with a narrow white neckband with black vertical stripes. The under parts are white. The back and wings are black mottled with white.
The Latin name ‘Gavia’ refers to a seabird and has a complicated origin, as it originally was the name of a duck species, the ‘smew’. However loons are not related to ducks, even if they have webbed feet, but the name remained nevertheless. The Latin word ‘immer’ derives from ‘immersion’ (in water for the common loon). The English name ‘Loon’ comes from Shetland ‘loom’ and refers to the bird’s poor ability to walk on the ground, due to its legs being positioned at the back of its body, which helps for swimming though.
The call of the loons has been described as ‘demented’ (origin of the ‘crazy as a loon’ idiom and the adjective ‘loony’, which means ‘crazy’ or ‘lunatic’), or a ‘lament’ (‘loon’ might be derived from Old Norse ‘lómr’ which means ‘lament’).
In flight their feet can be seen behind their short tails. The legs are positioned at the back of their bodies, allowing good swimming but making them clumsy on the ground (hence the English name). Common loons also need a long ‘takeoff runway’ of water to fly and become airborne. This will restrict their habitat to large enough bodies of water allowing them to do so, otherwise they may get stranded.
This bird’s various calls are very well known and an intrinsic part of the Canadian wilderness. They are heard mainly in the morning and late at night and can be haunting when camping in the forest by a lake. Their calls will sometimes mix with the howling of wolves in the distance and/or the slapping of beaver tails on the water nearby. Since they hunt by sight they need clear water, therefore their presence is a positive sign for the water quality.
The common loon is important in the culture of many First Nations people. It is the provincial bird of Ontario, and the state bird of Minnesota. It is a very Canadian bird for its breeding range and habitat, which includes PEI, and also Alaska and coastal Greenland. It is common on the island in spring and fall. It will winter along the coasts of Canada and USA, and also of Europe.
This bird was chosen for the metal coin replacement of the one-dollar Canadian paper bill back in 1987. The coin is widely known as the ‘loonie’ (not to be confounded with ‘loony’).