Underwater torpedo: Interview with a Common Loon

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege,USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege, USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK

 

Me: I feel like I’ve been paddling this canoe forever. Oh, look a loon! It’s standing up and flapping its wings at me, how welcoming.

Common Loon: Idiot, this is a territorial display! What are you doing on my lake?

Me: Well, I’m camped just over there…

L: Is that an outboard motor I see?

M: No, this is a canoe.

L: Planning on doing any fishing with lead weights?

M: Um, no.

L: Okay, I guess you’re not a direct threat at the moment. You can stay.

M: Um, thank you. What do you have against lead fishing weights?

L: Well, unlike you humans I don’t have any teeth. Instead I have a muscular pouch behind my stomach called a gizzard that I fill with pebbles to chew my food. I’ve had friends die of lead poisoning because when they dove to grab some pebbles off the lake bottom, they also swallowed a fishing weight. It isn’t a good way to go.

M: That’s awful. What do loons eat, anyway?

L: Fish! Especially small ones like perch and sunfish.

M: But how do you catch them if you don’t have teeth? Aren’t fish slippery?

L: We thought of that. The tongue and the roof of my mouth are covered with backward-facing barbs that grab fish and force them down my throat.

M: How do you catch these fish in the first place? They’re pretty fast.

L: Not as fast as I am. I’m a specially designed killing machine.

M: Really? I find that hard to believe.

L: There’s more to being a loon then singing mournful songs on a lake.

M: Fine. Tell me about fishing.

L: I find my prey by sight. This means I need to hunt in clear, unpolluted lakes during the daytime so I can see them. Once I spot a fish, I get ready to dive. My body is specially designed for diving. Unlike most birds, my bones are solid so I can sink in the water. I also force the air out from my lungs and from between my feathers to go even faster. My feet are at the very end of my body, and push me down like a propeller. All this means I can dive very deep, up to 60 metres or 200 feet. I can even change direction underwater quickly to nab a darting fish. My heart even slows down to conserve oxygen when I dive. I’m basically a diving machine.

M: Okay, you’ve convinced me. You’re a top predator. When you can’t find fish, do you eat anything else?

L: I will eat snails, leeches, crustaceans and insect larvae in a pinch. But only if I have to.

M: I don’t see you on the shore very much with the ducks and the geese. Why not?

L: My feet are perfect propellers, but they aren’t good for walking. I spend all of my time in the water, except when I’m on the nest.

M: Aww, nesting! Your babies are such cute little balls of grey down. I love to see them riding on your back.

L: They’re demanding little balls of fluff. Our family can eat up to 30 kilograms of fish in a week. That’s a lot of diving!

M: This is an awkward question, but do loons mate for life?

L: Well, it depends on how long we live. Our average lifespan is between 9 and 30 years, and a pair bond usually lasts five years. You do the math. One day my mate won’t return to this lake, and I’ll find another black and white hottie.

M: Return from where? You don’t stay here all year?

L: Goodness no! We only come to Canadian lakes in the spring to breed. Frozen lakes do not make for good fishing. In the fall we migrate and spend the winter on unfrozen water, often in coastlines and estuaries.

M: Okay, back to nesting! Who gets to choose the nest site?

L: The male does. He tries to find somewhere sheltered a hidden on the lake shore. An island is perfect. Lots of animals would love to eat our eggs and young, like turtles, raccoons and gulls. We’ll generally only lay two eggs in a season, and take turns sitting on them for 30 days until they hatch.

M: What happens then?

L: Well, unlike other birds which are born blind and naked, our babies are super mature. In fact, they’re swimming only a few hours after they’re born.

M: That’s incredible!

L: Yep, they’re pretty awesome. That being said, we can usually only stand them for about 12 weeks. Then we take off for a migration honeymoon and leave the kids to their own devices.

M: That seems cruel. How do they know where to migrate in the winter?

L: Oh, they find a flock of other youngsters and figure it out together. Once the kids reach the ocean they’ll stay there a full two years going back north. Even so, they usually don’t start having chicks until they are 6 years old. If they haven’t already been eaten by sea otters or birds of prey, that is.

M: Sea otters, really?

L: Yep. They’ve been seen grabbing us from underneath and then wrestling us underwater.

M: Why don’t you fly away?

L: Well, first it’s a sneak attack, and second, taking off isn’t that easy. We need to run along a stretch of open water 27 to 400 metres long to generate enough speed to take off. This means that if we land in lakes that are two small, we’re stranded there. Flying isn’t something we can do instantaneously, but once we get going we can fly highway speeds of 100km or 70 miles per hour.

M: One last thing: What are those wild calls all about?

L: Our wail is to find a missing mate or defend territory, and the one that sounds like human laughter is to defend territory or chicks.

M: Great, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

L: Thanks for not polluting my lake.

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/loon/
http://www.britannica.com/animal/loon-bird
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/common_loon/lifehistory
http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/common-loon/
http://seaotters.com/2012/08/did-you-know-sea-otters-can-eat-birds/

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