Minnesota's State Bird is the Common Loon


The common loon (Gavia immer) was adopted as the official state bird symbol of Minnesota in 1961. Loons are known for their cries, wails, and yodels - their eerie, echoing calls are a distinctive feature of Minnesota's northern lakes.

The haunting, melancholy call of the common loon has long enchanted those who love to be near the water. The call can be a wobbly, liquid chortle or an eerie yodel, sounding almost unearthly, especially when it ripples through the quiet wilderness or echoes across a tranquil lake. Known as the "spirit of the wilderness," the common loon actually has four calls: the wail, yodel, tremolo and hoot. Common loons breed and raise their young in Canada and northern U.S. states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, every summer.

What is a loon?

Loons are listed first in North American bird field guides because they are the most primitive bird, having existed long before humans. Loons are large black and white birds with red eyes. They have wingspans up to five feet and body lengths up to three feet. Although clumsy on land, they are high-speed flyers and excellent underwater swimmers. Approximately 12,000 of these unique birds make their summer homes in Minnesota.

Adult loons have a black velvety head, red eye, sleek torpedo shaped body, black-and-white checkered back, a white "collar" on the back of the neck and a pointed bill that they hold parallel with the water. In winter, their plumage turns dark gray. Loons' legs are short and set far back so they cannot walk well. They weigh between six and 12 pounds.

Loons swim low in the water because their bones are heavy. Excellent divers, they can vanish underwater to find food or escape danger without leaving a ripple and reach depths of 200 feet or more. Their large webbed feet act as propellers, enabling fast travel underwater. The record diving time for the common loon is three minutes. The average diving time is 42 seconds.

To take flight, loons may run as far as a quarter of a mile on the water's surface to build enough speed to get aloft. In the air, they have a rapid wing beat and can fly up to 75 miles per hour. Loons preen to stay attractive, enable flight, protect against the elements, reposition feathers and to remove parasites, dirt and oil from their feathers. They collect oil from a large oil gland on top of the base of the tail and spread it over their feathers to make their bodies water- repellent.

Loons are sexually mature at age three and, on average, obtain their own breeding territory around age five. A pair always builds a nest near water, preferring islands to avoid predators, but also anchored to the mainland in wetland areas. Nest sites are somewhat open so they can see intruders. The female usually lays two eggs, which the parents-to be take turns incubating 30 to 32 days. Loons are considered to be very territorial; they aggressively defend their nests and young. Adult loons have been documented to live over 25 years in the wild. Loon chicks are semi-precocial, they leave the nest within two days of hatch, locomoting behind the adults or riding on their backs. The parents do feed them nearly exclusively for the first eight weeks.


In late October and early November before lakes freeze, loons fly south to coastal seas, with some traveling 3,800 miles. Loons are one of the few birds found in both freshwater and salt water, from northern lakes to southern marine environments. From mid-January to February, adults have a "catastrophic" molt, losing all feathers and becoming flightless for three to four weeks.

Loons return to northern lakes and rivers sporting their distinctive plumage usually in April or early May to breed and raise their young. Most migrating loons will return to the same area within 30 miles of their birthplace.