Loons are a family of aquatic birds which spend almost their entire lives upon the waters of lakes and ponds all across the Northern Hemisphere. Seen as a solitary bird of the wilderness, the haunting call of the loon, combined with its mastery of water and air, has established the genus Gavia as both ancient and deeply symbolic.
In this ultimate guide to the loon and its meaning as a spirit animal, totem, power animal and symbol, we’ll discuss everything that makes a loon a loon, as well as every way in which humans have interpreted this curious bird throughout history. Let’s get started!
Introduction to the Loon
Loons, also called ‘divers’ elsewhere in the world, are a family of aquatic freshwater birds spread across North America (USA, Canada and the Arctic) and northern Eurasia. They belong to a family tree comprising some of the oldest extant birds in the world, and have probably inhabited the wild north for a very, very long time.
For the longest time, it was believed that loons were close relatives of other diving birds, like grebes. However, scientists have shown that this is not the case (rather the two have simply evolved to share similar characteristics out of necessity). Instead, it is believed that loons may be more closely related to water birds like penguins.
There are five living species of loon, as follows (with the Loons native to North America highlighted in bold and underlined):
- Red-throated loon
- Black-throated loon
- Pacific loon
- Common loon
- Yellow-billed loon
Perhaps most interestingly, though the loon can be found all around the world, in Siberia, China, Europe and other parts of Asia, the symbology of the loon appears most prevalent in the folklores and mythologies of the Native American and Canadian First Nations people.
Loons are about the size of a large duck or small goose, and may sometimes be confused with cormorants in appearance. They are distinct, however, thanks to their white feathers, which typically feature along their backs and wings, interspersed with black or dark gray. All loons have white bellies.
Both the males and females of the loon order look ostensibly identical, except that the males tend to be a little larger.
Much of the symbolism surrounding loons comes from their rather solitary, serene patterns of behavior. Unlike many other species of bird, they tend not to nest in groups (except for the red-throated loon), preferring rather to separate out and occupy just one corner or bay of a lake each.
Most famously, of course, is the high, tremolo call of the loon. Almost like a yodel, it echoes off the surrounding hills and mountains. This call works like echo location: “I’m here, where are you?”. Like the baying of a wolf, this cry and response – heard most frequently around dusk – is mournful and beautiful, stirring one’s emotions yet somehow offering a slice of serenity at the same time.
Loon Conservation Status
Thankfully, 4 out of 5 of the loon species are registered as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN. The fifth, the yellow-billed loon, is ‘Near Threatened’, but its numbers remain thankfully strong (for now).
Several factors may impact the population numbers and overall health of the loon family. Over-fishing of lakes, as well as urban development on lakesides will both damage the loons natural habitat and reduce available food sources.
Loon Symbolism in Native American Mythology
Loons have a deep history as mystical inhabitants of the north: that dark and dangerous part of the world which has inspired so much folklore throughout time. Wandering tribes of people populating the Americas for the first time around 9,000 years ago would have paused and wondered at the bone-tingling yelps of the common loon on the glassy lakes of places like the Adirondacks.
Let’s take a look at what the loon meant to the indigenous peoples of the northern regions, as well as what it continues to mean to us today.
From the Sioux and Chippewa (Ojibwe) of the Great Lakes, to the many disparate peoples of California and the Pacific Northwest, the loon has always been a source of fascination. For some, it is even the source of life.
1. Earth Diver
Many Native American origin stories revolve around the concept of the earth being pulled up from beneath a great sea. This could be due to the fact that their ancestors had to wait for the earth bridge to appear from beneath the frozen oceans of the arctic before they could cross from Siberia to the Americas.
Usually in these origin stories, one animal in particular is responsible for successfully bringing earth to the surface of the great ocean. For many different North American Indians, the loon is that animal. As ‘earth diver’ the loon is revered as a holy and sacred animal responsible, essentially, for all life on earth.
2. Ojibwa Flutes
A traditional Ojibwa story suggests that the tribe’s flutes were carved in order to mimic the piercing, serene call of the loon. A call which inspires the reawakening of old hopes, especially in modern times – reconnecting us urbanites (and Native people whose connection to nature has been systematically eroded by Whites) with the wild.
3. The Tsimshian Blind Man
Perhaps owing to the clarity of the loon’s vision when diving for prey, there is a Tsimshian tale from modern Alaska which tells of how a loon restored a blind man’s sight in exchange for the beautiful white feathers around its neck (which perhaps refers to the slender ring of white around the yellow-billed loon’s black neck).
4. Divine Messengers
In other sectors of Native American society, the loon – who rules the lakes with its call, and the skies with its 1,000km+ flights during migration – is viewed as a divine messenger and a symbol of peace.
5. California Loon or Loon Woman
In the Modoc and Wintu tribes of California, there is a peculiar story about a ‘Loon Woman’, with a moral about the taboo of incest. In the story, Loon Woman breaks and steals the hearts of her family, and transforms into a loon. Only when Loon Woman is hunted and shot down years later are the hearts returned to the family’s ancestor and order restored.
Loon Totem in Canada
The wails of the loon might have caused distress or a sense of tranquility and peace of mind. They certainly served as inspiration for animal totems and omens, and likely were the driving force between loon dreams and subsequent interpretations.
1. Canadian First Nations
For many Canadian First Nations tribes – from Ontario to BC – the loon also holds an especially important place in their origin stories.
Like the ‘earth diver’ of Native America, the loon for First Nations peoples brought a willow branch symbolising the receding of the great oceans, in turn informing First Nations ancestors that it would soon be safe to move and settle.
You’ll often find in the iconography, art and storytelling of the Canadian First Nations a loon totem animal or loon spirit animal. As a totem animal, the loon symbolizes peace, communication, tranquility and generosity.
2. The Canadian Loonie
The Hollywood Loon Call
It might surprise you to learn that the call of the common loon didn’t stop inspiring people come the contemporary, digital age. In fact, far from it. Arguably, the common loon’s call has been heard by more people than ever before, all thanks to… you guessed it, Hollywood!
The loon’s hooting is so evocative of various emotions – fear, longing, nostalgia for the wilderness, peace – that it is an ideal tool in the toolbox of sound designers and directors.
Used whenever a filmmaker wants to make a scene feel anticipatory or frightening, as well as in more ambient settings which need to feel ‘wild’ and ‘ancient’, you can hear the loon’s call in movies from Harry Potter and Avengers to 1917, and in TV shows from Rick & Morty to Game of Thrones.
As dusk falls and the light makes a mirror of the fog-strewn lake, a loon cries out. Her call is eerie, desolate yet undeniably beautiful. Moments later, her mate returns the call, and soon the mountains are rippling with the long, droning wails of the earth-diver, loon woman, and messenger to the gods. The call is reminiscent of our higher self, lost to the wilderness of ancient times, when humans were more at one with the land.