New Hampshire’s Common Loon (Gavia immer)

There is nothing common about the Common Loon (Gavia immer). It is believed to be the most primitive bird on the planet, and is very close in body plan to the Hesperornis, an aquatic bird from 100 million years ago.

In Abenaki language, this bird was called “Medawihla,” and was considered the “magic or shaman bird.” In Abenaki folklore, the loon was Klozkap’s [Glooscap/Gluskabe] huntsmen, and they go through the world looking for their master wailing sadly because they cannot find him.

Loons are also called the “Great Northern Diver,” and they breed in Canada, Greenland, Alaska, and the northern United States (including New Hampshire).  They winter on the sea coast or on large lakes.

A loon’s three front toes are full webbed. It has red eyes. In spring and summer a loon’s head is dark green with a black back, profusely marked with “squarish spots of white,” and it has a white underbody.  There are rings of white and black around its neck.  In the fall and winter the back color turns to gray.

The loon prefers to live on secluded lakes, ponds or estuaries. It can stay underwater for long periods. Clumsy, and therefore vulnerable on land, the female nests close to the water. Loons feed on fish, sometimes diving as deep as 200 feet (60 m) to consume pike, perch, trout, sunfish and bass. When living near salt water, they will eat flounder, sea trout, rock cod and herring. Loons are monogomous, forming long-term pair bonds, and the male selects the nest site.

Probably the most noticeable feature of loons are their strange bird calls.  One of their sounds, a “tremolo,” (or “loon laughter,”) is 8 to 10 notes voiced rapidly and is considered an alarm call indicating agitation or fear.  Loons make several sounds, including a “yodel” (that sounds like “oo-AH-ho“), “tremelo,” “wail” (that sounds like “kee-a-ree-kee-a-ree“) and “hoot.” Some consider the sounds to be eerie, while others think of them as sounding beautifully lonely. John Greenleaf Whittier in his poem Kenoza Lake wrote, “the shy loon sounds his trumpet-note.”

The word “looney” means “absurd, crazy, or foolish,” and its use may have arisen as a reference to the loon’s strange sound.

New Hampshire Loons Still on the Decline….
Nearly half of all adult loon deaths on New England’s breeding lakes were determined to be the result of the birds ingesting lead sinkers and jigs left behind by fisherman. Leading the way to protect loons, on January 1, 2000 New Hampshire became the first New England state to outlaw lead weights in fishing tackle.

Despite this five year ban on lead sinker use in New Hampshire, 5 of 11 adult loons found dead and collected in 2005 confirmed lead poisoning at the cause of death.

In addition, recently twenty loons were found frozen to death, or dying on Lake Winnipesaukee.  Scientists speculate that the group mistook “black ice” for open water, and upon landing were not able to get airborne (they need a quarter of a mile of open water to take off).  The fact that so many of these usually solitary birds were found in one location remains a mystery.


*Additional Reading*

-New Hampshire’s Loons Still Living Precariously-

Loon Preservation Committee

Songs and Calls of the Loon– (audio)

Photographs of the Common Loon (Animal Diversity Web)


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