We commonly use the word "loon" to refer to to highly annoying, yet functional, members of our mentally-unbalanced community. (Cf. Katharine Hepburn in "On Golden Pond"). There’s probably no real harm in this, since it has been shown that loons, as a species, are not touchy about this kind of thing, and in fact I often use the word this way myself.


The red-eyed loon’s eerie, demented-seeming tremolo, and perhaps also a mistaken analogy with the word “lunatic”,  make this usage seem reasonable. However, the etymology is all wrong.  The pejorative word “loon”, of uncertain origin, is actually attested earlier than the bird's name (cf. Shakespeares’s “whey-faced loon”.) The name of the bird comes, via the Shetland Islands, from the Norse lumme or lom, meaning “lame” or “clumsy”, and derives from the fact that the loon, a water-bird, is scarcely able to walk at all on land.


The five species of loon have no close relatives (though they have been associated with grebes), and belong to their own order, family and genus within the bird class (Gaviiformes Gaviidae Gavia Immer.) The loon is streamlined and specialized for diving (with solid bones, unlike most birds,  causing it to ride low in the water) and the ability to store oxyhemoglobin and myoglobin in its muscles. The loon has the least wing surface in proportion to body weight of any flying bird; nonetheless, even though they are able to take off from the water only after a long run, they can fly as fast as 90 mph, and migrate as far south as Florida for the winter.


Loon enthusiasts often claim often claim that the loons are the most ancient bird species. In fact, the oldest bird fossil is apparently that of a loon from 65 million years ago (pdf file, Fig. 1). However, this is probably an accident of preservation, and does not mean that the loon is ancestral to all other birds (as Fig. 4 shows), though it does mean that the loon type was already in existence during the Cretaceous (the age of the dinosaur).


Some loon advocates make excessive claims for the hesperornis, a very large flightless, feathered, toothed seabird whose traits shared with loons, like those of the grebe, are now explained by convergent evolution. This piece seems to make the identification even of the Neogaeornis wetzeli Lambrecht fossil loon a little doubtful. At the moment, however, loons do seem to be playing a key role in discussions of avian evolution.


Loons experienced in the wild are memorable and vivid. They're compact, hefty birds capable of killing a Canada goose, and their red eyes and distinctive black-and-white pattern make them visually striking. A loon can stay under water for as long as fifteen minutes, and my own strongest memory of them is seeing a loon suddenly disappear underwater, only to reappear minutes later and hundreds of feet away. But their deranged call is their trademark. The loon's tremolo call can be heard five miles away in the silence of the woods, and I've read that some nights every loon around will be calling to the others, with the result that a whole lake district of hundreds of square miles, beyond the horizon, will be filled with the call-and-response of loon solos.


The loon is the national bird of Canada and the state bird of Minnesota, and those guys really know what they're doing when it comes to great birds.


Tom Klein’s book Loon Magic isn’t really a great piece of nature writing, and its pro-loon bias keeps it from being entirely reliable as natural history -- Klein fudges some of the more exaggerated claims for loons with the telltale phrase “some say….” However, it has a lot of valuable information about loons, and everyone with a proper appreciation of loons will want this book.

Looncalls and loonpictures


Loon tremolo


Howl of the Tasmanian devil (for comparison)

Howl of the hyena (for comparison)




All original material copyright John J. Emerson 

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