We commonly use the
word "loon" to refer to to highly annoying, yet functional, members of our mentally-unbalanced community.
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
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
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
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
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
Howl of the Tasmanian
devil (for comparison)
Howl of the hyena (for comparison)
All original material copyright John J.