Looney Loons: watching loons at war on the lake

ALGONQUIN – One of the most fascinating things about the loon is their distinctively haunting voice, but watching two male loons duke it out in a territorial battle while the females watch and cheer on their partner is a rare sight to see that reminds us how creative our Creator really is.

Loons are a group of diving birds found in many parts of North America and Northern Eurasia that start to establish territories on a lake near the end of April, but that doesn’t mean that once a territory is claimed by a pair of loons that their position can’t be claimed by another in what sometimes leads to a fight to the death between males.

Jeremy Bochenek, an avid fisherman and birdwatcher witnessed a territorial battle for a small patch of lake between two pairs of loons on a canoe trip in Algonquin park a few weeks ago.

“We were fishing from our canoe in the middle of the lake and we watched the two pairs swim toward each other until they met in the middle, near us. One loon would dive under for a few moments and soon after that, another would make a different kind of cry I’ve never heard before and run across the water, really fast, using his wings to propel him forward.”

Bochenek was with a few other friends and all of them thought it was interesting, but also funny to watch a loon take off running on top of the water for several hundred metres like the Road Runner would from a Looney Tunes cartoon. The unique cry that he and his friends heard is called a “loon’s yodel” — a long, rising call with repetitive notes lasting up to six seconds. It is used by the male to defend his territory and can be stimulated by another male entering a loon’s territory.

Bochenek found out when he returned from his trip that it is the males that dive down and also run across the water, not the females. Males are usually the ones that battle for territory while the females stay above the surface hoping that their partner is successful.

“I had never seen loons battle for anything before, they’re usually so calm and peaceful out on a lake,” he said. “But as soon as I saw what was going on I was pretty sure they were fighting for space on the lake.”

A loon can dive more that 200 feet under the water and when one of the males does this, he is preparing for an attack, which is what sets the other male off running in fear because he doesn’t know where the first male went. The male who dove will soon change direction and head to the surface like a torpedo, aiming his dagger-like three-inch beak at the opposing males chest, hoping to spear his heart — not your typical brawl you might expect from an animal.

“When the loons weren’t diving or running, all four were just on top of the water circling each other,” said Bochenek. “We didn’t see either of the loons get killed, but after a good amount of time one of the pairs did swim off in the direction they came — my guess is they lost.”

Until recently, loons were thought to mate for life; however, recent studies have shown that loons will often switch mates if their previous mate does not return in the spring or is displaced or killed by a rival loon during the breeding season. So the female partnered with the loon that loses the battle, will likely will move on to a different location and a different mate.

“It was really cool,” said Bochenek. “Definitely one of the highlights of the trip.”

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