Minnesota's state bird, the common loon, is more at home in the water than on land. Built like a torpedo, it swims under water in search of prey. Minnesota has more common loons than any other state except Alaska.
General description: Larger than a mallard but smaller than a goose, this water bird has a thick neck and a long, black bill. Its legs are set far back on its body, so it has an awkward gait on land. The male is slightly larger than the female, but otherwise the two sexes look identical.
Weight: Adult loons weigh 8 to 12 pounds.
Color: The common loon has a black bill and a red eye. In summer it is a spotty black and white with a black/iridescent green head. In fall a "winter coat" that's gray above and white below replaces its summer plumage.
Sounds: The common loon has four calls. The tremolo, which sounds a bit like maniacal laughter, is an aggressive call. The wail is a long, drawn-out sound. The hoot, a shorter call, is used to communicate among parents and young. The yodel is sounded by male loons guarding their territory.
Loons don't begin breeding until they are three or four years old. The male chooses a territory and attracts a mate. Together the male and female build a nest out of reeds and grasses on the edge of the water. They take turns incubating the one to two eggs the female lays. After 28 to 30 days blackish brown chicks emerge from the eggs, soon ready for a swim. One of the ways parents care for their young is to carry them on their backs to keep them safe from fish and turtle predators. Young loons don't fly until they are more than two months old.
Loons like fish - panfish, perch, ciscoes, suckers, trout, bullheads, smelt, and minnows. They also may eat frogs, leeches, crayfish, mollusks, salamanders, amphipods, and insects.
Adult loons rarely are eaten by other animals (except bald eagles), but their young can fall prey to skunks, raccoons, foxes, snapping turtles, northern pike, and muskies.
Habitat and range
Loons are found on lakes throughout central and northeastern Minnesota. In September, Minnesota's adult loons travel to their winter home along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina south to Florida, or on the Gulf of Mexico. Younger loons follow a month or so later.
Population and management
Minnesota has more loons (roughly 12,000) than any other state except Alaska. Threats to loons include human disturbance and pollutants such as lead and mercury. The DNR monitors loon populations with the help of volunteers to improve understanding of what our state bird needs to maintain a strong, healthy presence here.
Loons' lives are filled with fun facts. For example:
- The bones of most birds are hollow and light, but loons have solid bones.
- The extra weight helps them dive as deep as 250 feet to search for food. They can stay underwater for up to five minutes.
- Because their bodies are heavy relative to their wing size, loons need a 100- to 600-foot "runway" in order to take off from a lake.
- Loons can fly more than 75 miles per hour.
- The red in the loon's eye helps it to see under water.
- Scientists think loons can live for 30 years or more