It is no insult to be called ‘crazy as a loon’

Last fall, I was hiking around the shoreline of Pierce Lake in Rock Cut State Park when I noticed two rather large birds floating leisurely some distance from shore. As they appeared to be too large for ducks and did not have the shape of a goose, I trained my binoculars on them and immediately identified them as common loons.

Common loons mostly breed and spend the summer in Canada, but many northern lakes in this country would not be complete without at least a pair of them homesteading there in the summer. As they are primarily fish eaters, as winter approaches, they migrate to the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, and may be observed on lakes in the eastern U.S. as they migrate to the coasts. When I moved to Maryland in the early 1970s, I noted they especially liked the Chesapeake Bay region in the fall and early winter.

If loons could hire a lawyer, they could sue for defamation of character anyone who uses the phrase “crazy as a loon.” They are, in fact, very smart birds and have done very well in the never-ending struggle for existence with nature and man.

My first introduction to a loon occurred some years ago when my son Michael, of Rockford, and I were camping on Basswood Lake in the Quetico Provincial Park in the wilderness of southern Ontario. I had just dozed off in my sleeping bag, when suddenly I was jolted awake by a piercing, unholy scream that seemed to electrify our tent. At first, the cry sounded like the wild laughter of an insane person, but in a few seconds, it changed, resembling the protracted howl of a lone wolf. Repeated shrieks and hoots that could have come from some infernal demon followed. Then, I realized the sounds had been coming from a pair of loons courting one another. I felt as if we were at last in the wild, primeval wilderness, and this first encounter with loons made a lasting impression on me. The expression “crazy as a loon” undoubtedly grew out of the weird sounds and calls these birds make on their summer breeding grounds and haunts.

The common loon is the species we are most apt to encounter in this region, but on occasion the red-throated loon may pay us a brief visit on its way to warmer climes. Both of these loons prefer to associate themselves with fresh water environments along the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. But once in January, I saw a pair of common loons nonchalantly floating alongside an aircraft carrier docked at the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Fla. The red-throated loon does not venture farther south than the east coast of northern Florida.

Loons are the most “watery” of our waterfowl, and they are seldom seen out of water. Their feet are neither constructed nor placed to enable them to walk comfortably on land. When they rarely venture out of water, the best they can do is waddle around, but in the water, they are completely at home. In some areas, the loon is called the great northern diver and has been observed to use both their feet and wings when swimming under water pursuing fish. Those who have witnessed this phenomenon say the bird seems to be swimming under water.

Most diving birds are able to remain submerged for only a few minutes or less. But the loon can stay under for a much longer period. A common loon was once observed to remain under water for 15 minutes, apparently a world’s record. And they can dive deeper than others. Dives chasing fish for dinner of 50 to 100 feet are commonplace, and once a loon was retrieved from a fish net at a depth of 200 feet.

In the past, loons and other fish-eating birds have been persecuted by well meaning but ignorant fishermen who believed the birds decimate fish populations. Several studies, however, have shown fish-eating birds and other animals that feed on fish are beneficial to fish populations. The theory being that if not preyed upon, fish populations will increase to the point where our finny friends are overcrowded, resulting in the stunting of growth and the likelihood of disease organisms having a better chance of becoming embedded in populations.

Indeed, we would be crazy as a loon if we did not recognize this interesting bird as a distinct and valuable part of our fauna.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Feb. 1-7, 2006, issue

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