How to Identify Loons and Their Calls

Birds of a Feather

Loon in breeding plumage
Photo Woody Hagge

Loons are unique and beautiful birds, yet sometimes they are tricky to identify. They hold their bodies lower in the water than most ducks, but one group of ducks—mergansers—swims low and are even shaped like loons. Cormorants also have a similar profile in the water, especially compared with Red-throated Loons, which hold their bills upward in a similar fashion.

Loon Look-Alikes
All photos courtesy Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter

Common Merganser
Photo Greg Kearns

Double-crested Cormorant
Photo Jeff Spendelow

Pacific Loon
Photo H.R.Spendelow Jr.

Loon breeding plumage is spectacular. But immature loons and birds in fall/winter plumage look like a completely different species. And to top it off, there are actually five species of loons, four in North America. Students along the Pacific coast may be able to see three or even four different kinds of wintering or migrant loons at the same time!

Looney Tunes: Four Vocalizations

Photo Dr. F.G.Irwin

Loon vocalizations (see our Loon Dictionary) are fascinating! In The Common Loon; Spirit of Northern Lakes, author Judith McIntyre describes them: "The loon's hoots "are short, single notes given among individuals in close proximity to one another. They are a form of contact call because they permit individuals to keep in touch with each other. Loons hoot during ritualized social gatherings and on the fall staging grounds. Hoots are also used by one loon as it approaches a group or enters the territory of another loon."

Report the first Loon you see this spring to Journey North!

"Wails serve as mechanisms to reduce distance between loons. Loons move more toward each other when they are wailing, and if one loon wails, its mate approaches and may also begin to wail. Wails seem to be the loon version of 'come here' and 'here I am.'"

Dr. McIntyre refers to W. E. Barklow's description of tremolos, or laugh calls, "as alarm calls, given during threatening situations. This means it is most often given when people approach nest or chicks. It is no wonder tremolos are more often identified as "loon" than other calls are; people frequently, albeit unintentionally, intrude on loon family life."

"Yodels are male calls, perhaps the counterpart to male song in most other bird species."


Listen to the
Loon's Hoot
.mp3 version

(.wav version. Wait for download; 110 K file)

Listen to the
Loon's Wail

.mp3 version

(.wav version- Wait for download; 202 K file)

Listen to the
Loon's Tremolo

.mp3 version

(.wav version. Wait for download; 115 K file)

Listen to the
Loon's Yodel

.mp3 version

(.wav version. Wait for download; 112 K file)

All sound recordings courtesy of Lang Elliott Nature Sound Studio