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Listen to the Calls of the Common Loon

By Brian M. Collins
Published: December 16, 2011
Photo by Brian M. Collins

EDITOR'S NOTE: We asked our friends at BirdWatching magazine if they knew where we could direct readers to hear “loon music.” Associate Editor Matt Mendenhall recommended Xeno-Canto, a website where people from all over the world share recordings of bird songs. Visit www.xeno-canto.org, and have fun listening to the variety of loon calls! Wildlife expert Brian M. Collins interprets the different loon calls below.

A single, subtle “hoot” is a loon’s way of saying “Hello!” This greeting works on an octave system, and I’ve enjoyed noting the differences between loons greeting others on water and those hailing an inbound flight. When all loons are on the water, each hoot is given on a middle octave. But when a loon is sailing in on its final approach, toes dangling, wings set in a glide, the loons on the water offer it an enthusiastic clearance for landing, contacting the flying bird with a much higher-pitched brisk hoot.

“You’re making me nervous!”
The tremolo is a loon’s nervous laugh. A flying loon may use a tremolo in harmony with other loons’ wail calls, or the call may be given by a pair when other loons are approaching. But we must respect the tremolo of swimming loons, who often use it when they’re nervous, especially when humans are too near a loon family with a chick. Heed a swimming loon’s tremolo by giving it some much-needed space.

“Where are you? I’m lonely.”
The lonely call of the loon, a smooth, two-note wail, is a contact call used to unite loons or maintain contact over distances. Sometimes this call is enhanced with a third note, adding to the beauty of a sound that echoes over wilderness waters.

“This is my territory.”
When a loon yodels, it’s declaring territory and a strong attachment to a mate. Males are the only loons to sing the shrill yodel, and it’s often a confrontational song declared in close proximity to other loons. Hierarchy may likely be challenged during social gatherings, and a loon with wings splayed, head low, neck inflated, and a strong, screeching yodel is sometimes the dramatic climax to a meeting between loons. This yodel is one of the strangest loon sounds; it’s a high, shrill, rising introductory note that ends with a series of rolling calls, “Weeee oh weeee, weeeee oh weeeee, weeee oh weeeee!”

“Bald eagle alert!”
Eagles have been predators of loon chicks through the ages, so loons carry a specific tune – the “eagle call” – to warn of them. This strange wail carries an urgent, hoarse sound, and is almost always in groups of three. The series is repeated, each time in a higher pitch. When it’s sounded, you can bet a bald eagle is hunting in the area.
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