Loons: The Flying Submarines

Posted 07.24.03

The moon is bright, the pond is still,
When from nowhere a bolt of sound
Splits the air and sends a chill
from bone to bone to the cold ground.
It is the loon's clear Martian cry,
Now crossing the fractured sky--
Whose laughter ancient gods rehearsed
Before ever the world was cursed.

© John Mahoney

I think I was fifteen years old when I first heard a loon. To live in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont until one is fifteen and not hear a loon is a deprivation, but it is not unusual, and it is better than living here all one's life and never hearing the voice of this magnificent bird -- as some may do; for while this is lake country, loons are no longer common here, and the loon is now an endangered species.

Fifteen is probably a good age to be introduced to the loon, mid-adolescence, and romantic. When I was fifteen, about forty years ago, Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast The War of the Worlds was fresh in everyone's mind.

My first impression on hearing the loon, lying in bed early in the morning at our new cottage on Newark Pond, was that the Martians had landed and were signaling to one another as they began to take over the planet. The loon is straight out of science fiction, and if Captain Nemo's Nautilus or the Beatles' Yellow Submarine are contraptions that strike your fancy, the loon is your bird.

Actually, the loon does not fly through the water like a penguin, as some have claimed, but uses its wings to help steer and to assist its powerful webbed feet in the underwater propulsion of a beautifully adapted torpedo-shaped body.

The loon's calls place it unmistakably in another world, but it is our own world of 110 million years ago, nearly twice the remove in time that was-once thought, and from which time it has come down to us with little modification, a bird closer to the lizards from which all birds evolved than any other present-day bird -- by virtue of which ornithologists put it first in their books. It is therefore also described as a primitive bird, but it is really one of the world's most sophisticated birds.

There are only four species of loon, and the Common Loon, or Great Northern Diver as it is known in Europe, is the only species frequenting the United States. The loon family is now regarded as a distinct family, not directly related to the grebes, as it was once classified, and with which it shares some characteristics, along with the cormorants.

It is not agreed how the name "loon" originated. It is suggested that it comes from the Old Norse and Icelandic LOMR, which denoted an awkward person; and the loon is indeed awkward when on land, for its legs are so far up into its body and so far behind that the best it can do is stumble along as if disabled, contrasting greatly with it's proficiency in water.

This Old Norse word is akin to the Latin lamentum, meaning a crying out in grief, or wailing, so there is another reason for connecting it with the bird's name. Another suggestion is that the word comes from "loom", of unknown origin, but occurring in Orkney, where it meant to come into sight above the surface of the sea. In this sense, too, the name fits, for the bird looms into view as it returns to the surface from a dive, often surprising one if its presence before has not been observed.

The connection with "lunatic" is probably accidental but homonymic, although the loon's activities sometimes easily could be described as crazy. There is a Middle English word, "loun", which means, among other things, a crazy person or simpleton. "Crazy as a loon" probably did not originate as a reference to the bird.

The loon is a large, heavy bird, sometimes three feet from beak point to tail tip. Its distinctive coloration, perhaps best described as majestically elegant, fades in winter to dull brownish grays and white. Male and female have the same coloration and mate for life. Some loons live to be twenty-five years old. Mother and father share in the incubation and close surveillance of usually two eggs, which take about thirty days to hatch.

The crude nest is close to the water and as soon as the hatched chicks are dry they tumble in. A pair of loons prefers a whole pond or lake to itself and likes a deserted island for nesting. Returning to the same place year after year, the loon ceases to breed if its habitat becomes developed by man.

Predation by raccoons, nest disturbance by man, habitat loss, and acid rain reducing its fish supply, appear to be the biggest threats to the loon, now that it is protected by federal law (there can be a maximum fine of $1000 and a year in jail for killing a loon or disturbing its nest). Sportsmen have been enthralled by the loon for years. It doesn't make a tasty dish, but it has a reputation for dodging the hunter's shot on sight of the f lash from the gun.

Thoreau wrote, in Brute Neighbors, Walden, in the middle 1800s, how:

In the fall the loon came, as usual, to moult and bathe in the pond, making the woods ring with his wild laughter before I had risen. At rumor of his arrival all the Mill-dam sportsmen are on the alert, in gigs and on foot, two by two and three by three, with patent rifles and conical balls and spy-glasses. They come rustling through the woods like autumn leaves, at least ten men to one loon. Some station themselves on this side of the pond, some on that, for the poor bird cannot be omnipresent; if he dive here he must come up there. But now the kind October wind rises, rustling the leaves and rippling the surface of the water, so that no loon can be heard or seen, though his foes sweep the pond with spy-glasses, and make the woods resound with their discharges.

If the challenge of the loon as a target was not enough to encourage sportsmen, the notion that the loon destroys substantial numbers of game fish was sufficient justification for killing it. Loons nesting or visiting Newark Pond were repeatedly victims of this myth. While the loon does eat a lot of fish, along with insects and frogs, and a chick may require three dozen fry a day, its diet is mainly the slower trash fish.

My father insisted this was the case and when an autopsy was done to prove him wrong, no trout were found in the crop, but a great quantity of small rock bass.

Coming upon a large dead loon at the pond's edge some years ago, I was moved to write these lines, lines I have tinkered with again and again and have never been satisfied with (the old Roman poet Horace said to keep your poem nine years; I have kept mine twice as long and have only proven to myself that I had better be about other business):


They shot the diving loon,
They thought it took their fish;
The bird whose cry we heard
Above a shrieking world --
And now its lonely mate
In fateful circle swims.
I mourn loss of one bird
Whose calls we love to hear,
And it is the one shot
I fear, that kills or not.

The loon's submarine abilities are amazing. We would do well to compare the submarine with the loon rather than the other way around. In the discipline of rhetoric, it is called a "technomorphism" when a human invention is used to describe an already existing feature of nature; and it usually does an injustice to the feature of nature being described.

Given its heavy weight, assisted by solid bones unlike most birds whose bones are hollow for easy flight, and given a marvelous lung system, the loon can dive quickly to depths of even 200 or 240 feet, staying under water for up to three minutes. Or, it can submerge slowly without disturbing the water's surface, by compressing its wings to force the air out of its feathers and by evacuating its lungs.

Sometimes it will partially submerge, leaving its neck and head above water for reconnaissance -- excuse the technomorphisrn -- like a periscope. When there are baby loons, the adult May swim like this with a chick swimming near its neck, the parent raising itself if needed so as to transport the baby high and dry on its back.

Normally, the loon will swim around with about three feet of its body above the surface. Beneath the surface, the loon overtakes the larger fish with its pointed beak, like other diving birds.

Requiring open water for fishing, it migrates as northern waters freeze over. Stopping at Lake Memphremagog on their way south or north, three or four pairs of loons may be seen swimming and diving in a kind of drill formation.

The small red eye of the loon -- like the eyes of so many other animals -- is a wonderfully acute instrument, dramatically testifying to what -- for some of us optimistic philosophers -- is a fundamental urge of nature to see and reflect upon itself.

Small brained like other birds, the loon nevertheless appears to have a sense of humor; and while it may not, be able to count above the number one, it seems to be able to calculate instantly, with all the refinements of a computerized range finder. Thoreau describes this so well, please let me quote again from his chapter in Walden:

As I was paddling along the north shore one very calm afternoon, for such days especially they settle on to the lakes, like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before. He maneuvered so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he coolly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine, I-t was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon. Suddenly your adversary's checker disappears beneath the board, and the problem is to place yours nearest to where his will appear again. Sometimes he would come up unexpectedly on the opposite side of me, having apparently passed directly under the boat. So long-winded was he and so unweariable, that when he had swum farthest he would immediately plunge again, nevertheless; and then no wit could divine where in the deep pond, beneath the smooth surface, he might be speeding his way like a fish, for he had time and ability to visit the bottom of the pond in its deepest part.

The loon's great weight in proportion to its wingspread makes it difficult for it to become air-borne and it must taxi 300 to 1000 or more feet, preferably into the wind, for take-off, which is impossible except from water.

Once in the air, the loon is an excellent flying machine, and has been clocked at sixty-two miles per hour. Flailing into the wind for take-off, or returning to the water in a splashy glide, the loon may -- to the unscientific observer -- appear "crazy as a loon."

Not long ago one of my co-workers saw a loon playing among a set of duck decoys. It flipped a decoy over several times and apparently tried to mount it.

Was it a crazy loon? A curious loon? Or a loon with a taste for exotic sex?

The voice of the loon has been consistently described as other-worldly, haunting, and among the strangest sounds in nature. Research identifies five types of sounds: the wail, the yodel, the tremolo or laugh, the hoot, The bark, when in flight, and then combinations of these.

Each of these sounds appears to state a different realm of meaning for the loon, making it perhaps one of the most articulate of birds. For the human ear, the loon's voice stirs a primeval, unconscious memory -- disappearing, reappearing.

I'd like to close by quoting two references to loons from Howard Frank Mosher's first Kingdom County book, Disappearances, published by Viking in 1977. See what you think about his suggestion that the loons know something we don't. Early in the book he writes:

The cedar swamp was the last big tract of wilderness in Vermont: one hundred thousand acres of wetlands and rivers, beaver flows and low wooded hills enclosed on three sides by the tall Canadian mountains. Most of it was accessible only by canoe. It held an abundance of rare wildlife, including the only remaining moose herd in the state, but now in the early spring it looked empty and barren. The loon had flown off toward the lake, laughing insanely as though it knew something we didn't and might not want to-as all the loons I have ever heard have always laughed.

And at the very end of the book he joins the loon's call with our own human sense of terror and wonder:

The sun was rising, glinting off Rene's musket, shining on the snow, illuminating the swamp, Kingdom County, Vermont and Quebec. Downriver a loon hooted. Its long wild call floated over the water and trees and snow as I stood with empty arms on the edge of my youth in a place wheeling sunward, full of terror, full of wonder.

Postscript: while putting this paper together I thought I would look up the loon in the American International Encyclopedia (1970 edition). Under Loon it said See Diver. Where Diver should be there was no entry. Thus another loon had disappeared; I hoped it was somewhere laughing.

Home | Features | Fiction | Poetry | Columns | Opinion
Copyright © Donald A. Craig 2003 /Barton Chronicles 07.03