Blane Klemek: The common loon symbolizes quintessential wilderness
John James Audubon wrote in Birds of North America this eloquent account of a well-known bird:
“View it as it buoyantly swims over the heaving billows of the Atlantic, or as it glides along deeply immersed, when apprehensive of danger, on the placid lake, on the grassy islet of which its nest is placed; calculate, if you can, the speed of its flight, as it shoots across the sky; mark the many plunges it performs in quest of its finny food, or in eluding its enemies; list to the loud and plaintive notes which it issues, either to announce its safety to its mate, or to invite some traveler of its race to alight, and find repose and food; follow the anxious and careful mother-bird, as she leads about her precious charge; and you will not count your labor lost, for you will have watched the ways of one of the wondrous creations of unlimited Power and unerring Wisdom.”
The bird that Audubon wrote about, as well as paint, is none other than Gavia immer, the common loon, also known as Minnesota’s official state bird. I believe, without question, that we chose well when the common loon became our state bird. For one, the loon symbolizes quintessential wildness; of which invokes the very essence of Minnesota. After all, the origin of the name Minnesota — derived from a Dakota Sioux Indian word — means “cloudy water” or “sky water.” Could then, I propose, in Nature’s entire splendor, a better union exist between one species and one place? Let us suppose there isn’t and that we’re the luckiest lot on earth.
The common loon is a member of an ancient group of birds. You’ll find the family, Gaviidae, at the very beginning of most bird books that follows traditional avifaunal taxonomic order. Only five species are found worldwide: arctic loon, pacific loon, red-throated loon, yellow-billed loon, and the common loon.
All loons are highly specialized aquatic birds. They eat fish and make their living swimming and diving while hunting for fish. Equipped with dagger-like beaks, powerful legs set farther posterior than other like-birds, and webbed toes, loons are marvelously adapted for life on and within the water. And that’s not all.
Loons possess a skeleton dissimilar to birds adept at flight. This is not to say, however, that our loon is out of its element when aloft, no, quite the contrary. Loons fly with a command of grace, power, and speed largely unrivaled in the bird world. Common loons routinely reach flight speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour. But to become airborne a loon needs a long and unobstructed liquid runway to run upon while wildly flapping its wings. Once adequate speed has been reached, the principles of lift are achieved.
On the other hand, a loon’s comfort zone, its true and intended medium, is clean and clear water. As a sight hunter, it’s imperative that a loon be able to see its finned prey as well as being able to overtake and capture its quarry quickly. And this is where the loon’s skeletal composition becomes important.
Most birds’ bones are relatively hollow in structure. Hollow bones are lighter in weight and thus, enable birds to accomplish and maintain flight easier. That withstanding, having lighter bones would be maladaptive for loons. For them, solid and heavier bones are the ticket. With such anatomy loons are less buoyant and so can achieve maximum dive potential.
Yet, there’s even more. Loons are able to compress the feathers on their body. Such action effectively squeezes out excess air that may be trapped between densely arranged feathers. Again, buoyancy is reduced. Couple this trick and the anatomical feature of solid bones with powerful swimming legs at their posterior-most, the loon is like an avian torpedo.
The unusual body design of loons, the very design so perfect for water, is a hindrance on land. Loons are awkward terrestrial creatures, and so choose nest sites that are close to or on the water. The nests are large and made of grass and weeds. Because of the difficulty that loons have in successfully nesting on some Minnesota lakes, especially those heavily human populated and recreational lakes, some people have had great success with artificial loon nesting platforms. These floating rafts are designed in such a way that allows loons to climb up on, build a nest, and use.
A year ago July while a friend and I shared a canoe fishing for smallmouth bass one beautifully calm evening on Gun Lake within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we stopped fishing for a while to watch a pair of loons treat us with a show. The pair of birds swam surprisingly close to the canoe as we sat quietly watching them.
One bird, after having dived below the surface some distance away, resurfaced to within a paddle’s length from the starboard side of the canoe. Glistening in the sunlight, I observed small beads of water rolling off the bird’s oily body feathers; its iridescent black-colored head and neck feathers seemed to cast an altogether different sheen as I sat mesmerized and blessed by the close encounter.
For a moment — loon and I — looked directly at one another. I could clearly see the deep red eyes of the bird peering at me seemingly as curious at me as I at him. And then, quickly, the bird slipped back below the surface of the dark water, scarcely creating a ripple, and for a fleeting second I saw him as his black and white form disappeared into the depths.
Indeed, I know I could write much more about this marvelous bird; its voice — the falsetto wails, the uncommon yodels, and the haunting though engaging and awe inspiring laughter — yet I would be remiss no matter the word count and descriptive detail therein…as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)