New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed
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Referred to as the "spirit of northern waters," the common loon is recognized as a symbol of unspoiled wilderness. In breeding plumage, this water bird is black-headed with a black, dagger-like bill, dark red eyes, a black collar, a white necklace, prominent white checks on the back, and white underparts. In non-breeding plumage, the body is essentially grayish above and whitish below with varying amounts of white showing on the side of the head. Dark traces of the collar are often visible. In the winter, the bill is lighter and of a grayish hue.
Juveniles are similar to adults in winter plumage but have more prominent barring across the back. A distinctive feature of the loon is its eerie, yodel-like call that can be heard on northern lakes where nesting occurs and on wintering areas in late winter and early spring.
Returning to the same breeding grounds year after year, common loons are believed to mate for life. Upon their return, the pair renews their bond with short displays, including synchronized swimming, head posturing and diving. The nest is built within a few feet of the water's edge by both the male and female. A clutch of two eggs is laid sometime between mid-May and June. The young hatch after an incubation period of 26-31 days and begin to swim almost at once. Within 24 hours, they are moved by the parents to a nursery area away from the nest. In 2-3 weeks, the young can make short dives and catch small fish. Fledging occurs in 11-13 weeks. Juveniles may spend several years in oceanic wintering areas before returning inland to breed.
The loon's diet consists almost entirely of fish.
Common loons breed across most of Alaska and Canada, south to Washington, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, and New England. In New York, common loons breed on the lakes of the Adirondack Mountains and in the St. Lawrence River region. Loons winter along the coast and on open lakes nearby.
While common loons are symbolic of quiet, secluded places, they also inhabit somewhat developed lakes. Larger lakes of 25 acres or more are generally preferred. The lake must be large enough to allow a clear takeoff over surrounding trees. The presence of both shallow and deep water is also important. Shallow water is used for foraging, nurseries, and shelter, while deep water is necessary for adult diving and social interaction.
Although historic information on common loons is incomplete, it is known that they were once much more abundant. It is likely that populations declined in the 1800s with European exploration and settlement. Common loons prefer the quiet atmosphere of uninhabited lakes, but growing human populations create disturbances on these lakes as they are developed. Disturbances caused by paddling, camping, fishing, and boating on lakes can lower the loon's reproductive success.
Anthropogenic (human-related) impacts on loons and other wildlife arise from a variety of sources. Accidental ingestion of lead fishing tackle by loons leads to lead toxicity and death. Catastrophic events, such as oil spills and botulism outbreaks, have potential to significantly affect loon populations during migration or on their wintering grounds. In the Adirondacks, acidification of lakes and mercury contamination of water bodies are problems. Acid rain lowers the biological productivity of lakes and reduces the amount of forage fish available to loons. Toxicity from mercury pollution of water bodies can lead to decreased reproductive success of loons.
Despite these difficulties, common loon populations in New York seem to be stable or increasing. Continuation of current management programs is necessary to maintain a healthy population. Public education is very important in reducing the risk of lead toxicity due to ingestion of lead fishing tackle and in decreasing disturbances caused by recreational activities such as boating. Such activities should be prohibited near nest sites and nursery areas during the breeding season. Signs providing information on the natural history of the common loon and the effects of human impacts on loons can be posted at boat ramps, beaches, campgrounds, and other public access points to inform the public of the loons' needs.
Monitoring programs, such as those conducted by the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation and the Audubon Society of New York, Inc. have been established to evaluate the long-term reproductive success and changes in the breeding population of Adirondack loons and help ensure that the haunting call of the common loon continues to echo off the Adirondack hillsides for years to come.
When looking for wildlife in New York, visit the Watchable Wildlife webpage for the best locations for finding your favorite mammal, bird, reptile, or insect. New York State has millions of acres of State Parks, forests and wildlife management areas that are home to hundreds of wildlife species, and all are open to the public. Choose from hundreds of trails and miles of rivers as well as marshes and wetlands.
Remember when viewing wildlife:
- Don't feed wildlife and leave wild baby animals where you find them.
- Keep quiet, move slowly and be patient. Allow time for animals to enter the area.
Quick Facts About Loons
- Loons have solid bones, while most other birds have hollow bones. Solid bones allow the loon to dive underwater to depths of up to 150 feet in search of food.
- After hatching, the chicks are carried on their parents' backs for the first few weeks.
- Walking on land is difficult for loons because their legs are positioned so far back on the body; therefore, they make their nests very close to the water's edge. It is important to keep your distance on land or by boat from nesting loons or from loons with chicks. Read more tips on the Loon Protection Factsheet (PDF).
What to Watch for
28-36 inches in length, 49-58 inch wingspan, and wingspan and weigh 8-10 pounds. Males are typically larger than females.
In summer, adults have a black-and-white checkered back, black head, a long pointed black bill, and bright red eyes.
In winter, their plumage (feathers) is mostly grayish-brown with white on the throat and belly portion. Their bill is grayish colored, and their eyes are brown.
Males and females are similar in color. Immature common loons are mostly grayish-brown in color.
Where to Watch
Large, deep freshwater lakes with islands and bays surrounded by forests.
What to Listen for
The call known as the wail is easily heard over long distances, sounding similar to a wolf's howl. Another call, the tremolo, sounds like a maniacal laugh.
When to Watch
The peak time to view common loons is during the summer breeding season, when their plumage is most vibrant. They can also be found wintering inshore along the coast of Long Island. They travel north from their wintering grounds in late March and April to their breeding grounds. They head south in the fall between October and November.
The Best Places to See Common Loons
Adirondack Park Preserve
- Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smith's, Franklin County
- Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center in Newcomb, Essex County
- Long Point State Park - Thousand Islands, Jefferson County (leaves DEC website)
- Moose River Plains Wild Forest, Hamilton and Herkimer County
- Stillwater Reservoir, Herkimer County
- Upper and Lower Lakes Wildlife Management Area, St. Lawrence County
- William C. Whitney Wilderness Area, Hamilton County