Montana Public Radio

Loon Calls: From Inquisitive To Bone-Chilling

Jul 29, 2019

Loon calls flow through our veins, seep into our bones and sinew. For a moment, we become the wild flute music that curls into every recess of the lake. The echo pulses within us long after the stillness returns.

Loons call in four ways, each carrying a meaning that, at some level, humans have come to understand.

First, there’s the soft, single-note hoot. This is the reassuring voice of parent to chick, or mate to mate.

The wail is an ascending then slowly descending howl. To do this, the bird clamps its bill nearly shut. As the sound forces its way up and out the windpipe, the throat swells. A questioning “who are you?” swirls across the lake to another loon.

The tremolo sounds like musical laughter, but actually signals alarm. When a boat steers too close to a nest, the owner loon will snap its bill open and closed, transforming air into wavy notes that writer John McPhee described: “If he were human, it would be the laugh of the deeply insane.”

It is the yodel of males challenging other males that has inspired true fear in people. Words like “maniacal,” “blood-curdling,” “thrilling,” and “horrible” all have been used over the past century to describe the indescribable.

Perhaps the origin of this fear is the same that inspired early settlers to hack clearings in the forests. They beat back the tangle of dark, wild things with puritanical zeal. Wolves howling, coyotes yapping, loons laughing — all seemed to mock civilization.

American Indians living in concert with wilderness responded differently to loons. The Chippewa tribe had a term, “loon-hearted,” to mean brave. The Ojibway word for loon, “mang,” conveys pride and beauty.

Montanans who share loon country west of the Divide welcome the return of the primeval birds to lakes that drape like jeweled necklaces upon the glaciated landscape. Loon calls coax the green stems to burst through thawing soils. A bird that looks like winter holds spring in its scarlet eye.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center. Listen on the radio Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or listen via podcast.