Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Loon chick riding on their parents' back © Carol Stone

Young loon chicks often ride on their parentsí back when they get too tired to keep up.
© Carol Stone

June 2015

Loon language

The hidden meaning behind the loon's iconic calls.

  • There are five different loon species worldwide.
  • Thirty percent of male territorial battles are fatal.
  • Common loons can live to be as old as 25 years or more.
  • Loon chicks will often hitch a ride on their parents' back when they get too tired of swimming.
  • Loons are fast with flight speeds in excess of 70 mph. They are excellent swimmers holding their breath for minutes at a time to catch fish with their serrated beaks.

Eric Verbeten

The call of the common loon resonating across a northern Wisconsin lake has been described in many ways: captivating, melancholy and haunting, to name a few. Their sounds pierce the silence of a calm evening, capturing the attention of anyone close enough to hear their charm. Loons have a range of five different calls they use to communicate with others, but what are they trying to say?

"It's a mix of things," says Mike Meyer, a research scientist with the Department of Natural Resources. "Most loon calls are to keep tabs on their family and to alert them of danger. Other calls announce the location of territorial boundaries."

Meyer has worked with Wisconsin's resident loons for more than 20 years and works on a long–term project to track their migrations and monitor their health.

The common loon is native to Wisconsin and resides in the northern third of the state during the summer. But starting in fall and leading into winter, loons migrate south to the Gulf of Mexico or head east to the Atlantic Ocean. Come spring, loons can be seen in the southern part of Wisconsin as they make their way north, by stopping to rest on any unfrozen body of water.

Hear the calls of the common loon by visiting dnr.wi.gov and search key word "loon"


"Alert!" Loons produce two different wail calls that are used to notify other members of trouble.

One–wail: One of the most common sounds heard from loons and is used to alert others of trouble or to tell others to regroup.

Two–wail: Used specifically to warn others of a bald eagle sighting. Bald eagles are natural predators of loons and their chicks.


"Hello, it's me." The hoot is a contact call used by adults to calmly notify chicks and others of their presence.


"Distress!" The tremolo call is made when a loon feels threatened, and is sounded when predators or people get too close.


"Back off!" The yodel is produced only by males and is used in territorial disputes when one male tries to take over another's territory on a lake. In these territorial battles, it is common for males to fight each other, sometimes with deadly results.

Eric Verbeten is a communication specialist with DNR's Office of Communications. He covers DNR science and research.

Special thanks to LoonWatch, Ashland College and Jay Meeger for the audio clips