Why the loon's iconic call says so much

  • It's always a treat to see common loons as they migrate between the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to the far north. Unfortunately for Illinoisans, they don't make their signature calls until they reach their breeding grounds in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada. Birder and nature photographer Jackie Bowman spotted this migrating loon near Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva in May 2012.

    It's always a treat to see common loons as they migrate between the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to the far north. Unfortunately for Illinoisans, they don't make their signature calls until they reach their breeding grounds in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada. Birder and nature photographer Jackie Bowman spotted this migrating loon near Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva in May 2012. Courtesy of Jaculin Bowman

 
Posted2/17/2020 6:00 AM

"That's it!" I exclaimed, tossing the remote control on the couch. "One more misplaced loon and I'm going to ..." -- well, write an article.

The straw that broke the camel's back was the movie "Platoon." I had just started to watch the 1986 classic, which draws the viewer into the steamy jungles of Vietnam. I was right there with Charlie Sheen, swatting insects and warily watching for snakes -- until I heard a common loon.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Now, I'm old enough to remember the draft during the war in Vietnam, and I don't recall loons being deployed. There's no way that this North American bird would be calling from the trees of the tropical forest.

It turns out that the common loon is conscripted to serve in Hollywood soundtracks, regardless of the location of the story. Film producers who are otherwise assiduous in details of authenticity add loon calls to evoke a feeling of wilderness -- no matter where or when.

Need sound effects for a World War II flick set in the foggy Ardennes forest of France? Cue the loons. Want to set the mood for a film about explorers in Africa? Loons, for sure. Or, my favorite, the blizzard scene in "The Revenant."

Hugh Glass fights for his life in the mountainous Wild West, and there, as the wind howls and the blinding snow swirls around our hero, is the summer call of a common loon.

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Loons are large water birds with wingspans upward of 46 inches. In breeding plumage, they are stark black and white, with red eyes. We see them in transition from winter to summer plumage as they pass through northern Illinois.
Loons are large water birds with wingspans upward of 46 inches. In breeding plumage, they are stark black and white, with red eyes. We see them in transition from winter to summer plumage as they pass through northern Illinois. - Courtesy of Bob Andrini

I say it's time we learned the truth about these birds. Why? Because loons, in context, make the coolest sounds in the world.

There are four distinct vocalizations in the loon's repertoire, each with a different purpose. The wail is the most popular for sound effects. Haunting, eerie, lonesome and mysterious, it can send chills down your spine.

19th-century naturalist John Muir wrote that the call of the loon is "one of the wildest and most striking of all the wilderness sounds." Henry David Thoreau described it as "a long drawn-out call, ... sometimes singularly human to my ear, ... like the hallooing of a man on a very high key, having thrown his voice into his head."

Thoreau called this "looning." This is the call that moviemakers love best.

Both male and female loons wail to communicate across lakes in the north woods, with peak wailing in the dark of night. It's their way of keeping tabs of each other. One individual will tip his head back and send his long, lugubrious wail across the water. A few seconds later, a distant loon will respond with an equally mournful call. It's kind of a "Marco-Polo" game, in minor key.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Another vocalization is the tremolo. This bizarre call is truly a loony tune. Conservationist Sigurd Olson described the tremolo as "maniacal and bloodcurdling." Naturalist John McFee wrote, "If [the loon] were human, it would be the laugh of the deeply insane."

To my ear, it has a hint of Curly, of Three Stooges fame.

There's some disagreement among ornithologists about the meaning of the tremolo. Some say it's a catchall call in the loon lexicon. Others say it's a distress call. Regardless, the tremolo is often used in early summer when offspring are most vulnerable to predators and other dangers.

Loons also yodel. The strange sound is accompanied by an equally bizarre flattening of the head and neck on the surface of the water. Yodeling is strictly a guy thing, used to proclaim or defend territory. If an intruding male crosses the invisible red line, a turf war on water ensues.

It's serious business. Intense yodeling, splashing, and physical combat create epic battles in which males sometimes fight to the death.

In contrast to the wail, the tremolo and the yodel, the loon's hoot is a soft and subtle vocalization. Both males and females hoot softly to each other as another way to stay in touch. It's an important means of communication when the chicks have fledged and the female needs to keep the kids in line.

Recording technology has made the loon's iconic calls accessible to everyone. In the old days, you'd have to paddle into the northern wilderness, schlep gear over portages, and endure black flies and mosquitoes to hear the otherworldly sounds of the loon.

Now, a Google search and a click or two will bring the sounds to you. Here are a few: allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Loon/sounds and dnr.wi.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/loonLanguage.html.

Or, you can just watch a movie with any semblance of nature in it and you will surely hear loons.

Many of us who have heard the call of the loon in situ will tell you that to fully appreciate the loon, you must experience the real deal. You can't beat the setting: the reflection of spruce trees on the glassy surface of a lake as the sun sets, the smell of fish sizzling over a campfire, and the primal, plaintive wail of a distant loon.

I've had to accept the reality of loons in Hollywood, and I'm grateful their calls are heard at all, even if accompanied by the smell of popcorn in a darkened cineplex. But given the choice of misplaced loons on the big screen or real loons on a remote northern lake, I'll take the latter.

• Valerie Blaine is a lifelong naturalist and loon lover, recently retired from the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You can reach her by emailing natvblaine@gmail.com.

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