Birds – Loon

(Urinator imber)


Length—31 to 36 inches.

Male and Female—In summer: Upper parts glossy black, showing iridescent violet and green tints. Back and wings spotted and barred with white; white spaces on the neck marking off black bands, and sides of breast streaked with white. Breast and underneath white. Bill stout, straight, sharply pointed, and yellowish green. Legs, which are placed at rear of body, are short, buried and feathered to heel joint. Tail short, but well formed. Feet black and webbed. In winter and immature specimens: Upper parts blackish and feathers margined with grayish, not spotted with white. Underneath white; throat sometimes has grayish wash.

Range—Northern part of northern hemisphere. In North America breeds from the Northern United States to Arctic Circle, and winters from the southern limit of its breeding range to the Gulf of Mexico.

Season—A wandering winter resident. Most common in the migrations from September to May.

This largest and handsomest of the diving birds, as it is the most disagreeably voiced, comes down to our latitude in winter, when its favorite inland lakes at the north begin to freeze over and the fish to fail, and wanders about far from the haunts of men along the seacoast or by the fresh waterways. Cautious, shy, fond of solitude, it shifts about from place to place discouraging our acquaintance. By the time it reaches the United States—for the majority nest farther north—it has exchanged its rich, velvety black and white wedding garment for a more dingy suit, in which the immature specimens are also dressed. With strong, direct flight small companies of loons may be seen high overhead migrating southward to escape the ice that locks up their food; or a solitary bird, some fine morning in September, may cause us to look up to where a long-drawn, melancholy, uncanny scream seems to rend the very clouds. Nuttall speaks of the “sad and wolfish call which like a dismal echo seems slowly to invade the ear, and rising as it proceeds, dies away in the air. This boding sound to mariners, supposed to be indicative of a storm, may be heard sometimes two or three miles when the bird itself is invisible, or reduced almost to a speck in the distance.” But the loon has also a soft and rather pleasing cry, to which doubtless Longfellow referred in his ” Birds of Pas-sage,” when he wrote of

“The loon that laughs and flies Down to those reflected skies.”

Not so aquatic as the grebes, perhaps the loons are quite as remarkable divers and swimmers. The cartridge of the modern breech-loader gives no warning of a coming shot, as the old-fashioned flint-lock did ; nevertheless, the loon, which is therefore literally quicker than a flash at diving, disappears nine times out of ten before the shot reaches the spot where the bird had been floating with apparent unconcern only a second before. As its flesh is dark, tough, and unpalatable, the sportsman loses nothing of value except his temper. Sometimes young loons are eaten in camps where better meat is scarce, and are even offered in large city markets where it isn’t.

In spring when the ice has broken up, a pair of loons retire to the shores of some lonely inland lake or river, and here on the ground they build a rude nest in a slight depression near enough to the water to glide off into it without touching their feet to the sand. In June two grayish olive-brown eggs, spotted with umber brown, are hatched. The young are frequently seen on land as they go waddling about from pond to pond. After the nesting season the parents separate and undergo a moult which sometimes leaves so few feathers on their bodies that they are unable to rise in the air. When on land they are at any time almost helpless and exceedingly awkward, using their wings and bill to assist their clumsy feet.

The Black-throated Loon (Urinator arcticus), a more north-ern species than the preceding, reaches only the Canadian border of the United States in winter. It may be distinguished from the common loon by its smaller size, twenty-seven inches, and by its gray feathers on the top of the head and the nape of the neck, though in winter plumage even this slight difference of feathers is lacking.