Common Loons are a Minnesota icon; as a matter fact, it is our state bird. They are commonly spotted on inland lakes throughout Northwoods. Common Loons have a black head and bill, a black-and-white spotted back, and a white bill. They are fairly large at roughly 7-9 pounds and 30-35 inches long. Loons are stealthy divers who like to use their dagger bills to catch fish. Because their feet stick out beyond their tails they are unable to walk on land very easily. They will sometimes act a little “looney” and stick one foot out of the water wagging it This is their way of cooling off on a hot day. They will also do a dance, a territorial dance, and lift their body upright while flapping their wings vigorously. You will usually see pairs of loons together, male and female, who like to communicate through their “nature patented” loon noise, loooooooooooooooon.
Common Loons spend the majority of their time in and around the freshwater lakes of the northern U.S. and Canada. They will swim in shallow waters in search of fish to eat and then use their sharp, teeth-like projections on the roof of their mouth to “chew”. In the winter, loons will migrate south where you can find them on lakes, rivers, estuaries, and coastlines. They make a beeline for warmer temps as some loons have been clocked flying at speeds of more than 70 mph! Once they get down south, they begin to lose their distinct black and white profile and become a dark gray color.
Each year, the Minnesota DNR conducts a Loon Count as part of its Minnesota Loon Monitoring Program. This program helps the DNR know where common loons are living, and how healthy the population is.
Male and female common loons will nest together over the course of a week in May or early June. A typical nest is about 22 inches wide and looks like a clump of dead grasses right next to the water. A female will lay 1-2 eggs that are generally brown with dark splotches. The incubation period takes 26–29 days, resulting in a small bird with a sooty back and a white belly. The baby loon is able to ride around and swim with its parents within 24 hours of hatching. Mom and dad will leave the juveniles on their own at roughly the 12-week mark and start flying south, the juveniles are then responsible to find other loons to fly south with – talk about a reality check!
Common Loons would win a sushi eating contest. Biologists estimate a family of four loons eat approximately a half-ton of fish in a 15-week period. Because they are expert anglers, they have no problem catching all the fish they want to eat. They will jet around underwater like torpedos, and when the fish change directions, loons are able to flip-turn better than Michael Phelps and catch their dinner! While underwater loons are also able to slow down their heart and conserve oxygen, sometimes lasting more than 5 minutes. In the northern waters, loons favor perch and sunfish because of their smaller size and ease of digestion. If fish are scarce, loons will search for other lake food, such as crustaceans, snails, and leeches. In the winter, loons will eat smaller fish such as Atlantic croaker and Gulf silversides.
Loons are extremely common on many lakes in Northern Minnesota every summer. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you will more than likely spot one.