Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Loons
Nature Bulletin No. 574   October 3, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

LOONS
Every year, in late autumn, we see a few loons on Maple Lake in the Palos preserves. They stop to rest and feed on their way to the gulf coast. In summer, fishermen on lonely lakes in the trackless forests of Canada often hear the weird unearthly cry of a loon. It must have solitude and, even in a remote wilderness, only a large lake may harbor more than one nesting pair.

Loons are seldom found on land. They are closely related to the diving birds of Arctic seas -- the queer looking auks, puffins, murres and guillemots -- and are cousins to our freshwater divers, the grebes. In each species, the males and females look alike.

This group is the most primitive of all birds and most closely akin to the reptiles. The legs are located so far back on the body, with the "drumstick" buried beneath the skin and feathers of its rump, that the heel joint is close to the tail. Consequently, on land they squat or stand in a vertical position, like a penguin, and walk with great difficulty, using both wings and feet to flounder along.

The Common Loon is a large dark bird with a boat-shaped body that rides very low in the water, a snaky head on its long thick neck, and a long narrow sharp-pointed and sharp-edged bill for catching fish. It has the peculiar ability to sink gradually until it disappears without leaving a ripple. Presently, some distance away, it emerges just as mysteriously.

The most unforgettable memories of a loon, seen and heard in a northern wilderness, are of its eerie calls that, at night, shatter the silence with voices like the wild laughter of a demon or the tortured howl of a lost soul.

In full breeding plumage the common loon has a purplish-black head and neck with a patch of narrow white stripes on the throat and similar patches on both sides of the neck. The upper parts, glossy black, are thickly marked with large square white spots in rows that give it a barred appearance. This is a handsome bird -- as sharp as a head waiter -- with red eyes. However, the adults in winter, and the young until their second year, are grayish-brown on top.

The loon's nest is a flat two-foot mass of vegetation close to the water's edge, or anchored to a bed of reeds, or occasionally on a muskrat house. She lays two dark brown or greenish eggs. When hatched, the precocial young are covered with down and soon able to swim and dive as well as their parents.

Loons feed largely on fish but they also consume quantities of crayfish, mussels, clams, frogs and aquatic insects. They catch fish in long underwater dives, sometimes using both wings and the webbed feet for greater speed. There are numerous records of loons being trapped and drowned in fishing nets placed 180 to 200 feet below the surface.

Six species of loons nest below or above the Arctic Circle in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Finland and Scandinavia. Our common loon winters farthest south but. the Red-throated Loon, smaller, is sometimes seen here on Lake Michigan.

There are several species of grebes, all resembling loons in many respects, but only the little Pied-billed Grebe frequents the Chicago region. Many of them raise their broods on the sloughs and ponds m our forest preserves. This grebe differs from other species in having a bill that -- instead of being long and pointed--is thick, blunt, curved downward at the tip, and circled by a black band. Among its many common names are Hell-diver, Water Witch and Dabchick. This is the familiar little ducklike bird that disappears in the water when alarmed and reappears far from where you last saw it. Nothing can dive as slick as a dabchick.


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