Loon In Distress?

Found a loon that looks like it’s in distress? If you are observing one the following common causes of loon distress/injury, contact a wildlife professional.

Is a loon exhibiting unusual behavior? Check the examples of normal loon behavior below to make sure you are witnessing a true loon in distress and not a potential false alarm. Taking videos will help us determine what’s going on!

Causes of Distress

Entanglement/Hooked Tackle

Loons may become wrapped in fishing line or become hooked by tackle from lines cast too close, going after active lines, or from fishing line discarded in the lake. To report entanglements, try to take photos clearly showing the line or tackle for confirmation.

Does it look like there may be something wrapped around the legs? Research bands often get mistaken for bobbers. To help you decide, read about leg bands below.

Beached/On Land

Loons are adapted to life on the water and they can’t move easily on land. A beached loon is usually a sign of something amiss: injury, illness, or lead poisoning. Give a beached loon space from people and pets while waiting for a wildlife professional. Include in your report the behavioral state of the loon.

Lead Poisoning

Ingesting lead tackle causes lead poisoning. Signs of lead poisoning are extreme lethargy and a lack of awareness of its surroundings –the loon may even unknowingly bump into nearby obstacles as it floats or it may beach on shore.

Loons do spend time resting and floating on the water but a lethargic loon is quite distinguishable from normal resting behavior. Watch our video Loons & Lead: What’s on The Line to see an example of a loon showing signs of lead poisoning (at the 0:44 mark).


Injuries inflicted from other loons during territorial battles may be difficult to observe. We try to intervene with injuries causes by human activity. Often, these are from boat/propellor strikes.

Photo by Wild & Free wildlife rehabilitation center showing an x-ray of a common loon with an injured wing, likely caused by a boat propellor.

Think the loon may have a broken or missing leg? Sometimes loon place their legs in different positions, read through these examples below.

Normal Loon Behaviors

If you think a loon is exhibiting unusual loon behavior, please read through the following and watch the linked videos to first check if you are observing a normal occurrence. The behaviors described below are what we typically see mistakenly reported as a loon in distress.

Colored Research Bands

Brightly colored bands, two on each leg, tell apart individual loons for research. Bands are visible through the water while the loon is swimming, when it sticks its leg out of the water to stretch, or while its preening. There are banded loons on the Whitefish Chain and surrounding lakes in Crow Wing County, MN.

The bands do not affect the loons ability to swim or go about its daily life. The bands are often confused for a bobber or some sort of tackle wrapped around the legs. Try to get a photo or take a closer look with binoculars to be sure it’s not the colored bands! There are a few more examples in the photos below.


Loons preen to keep their feathers clean and waterproof. The loons will tip their head back to reach their feathers and often roll onto their side to better clean their undersides. Often, one of their legs stretches out behind them while preening.

Preening loons are often confused as loons acting abnormally, but this is a normal part of their daily life! To watch a video of a loon preening, click here. Photo by Trista Snapko.


A more intensive way for loons to clean themselves and their feathers is to bathe by splashing water around, submerging their head, or rolling in the water. A loon can bathe for quite a while!

Bathing loons may look odd and is sometimes mistaken for neurological distress. Bathing is another normal part of their lives! Watch a video of a bathing loon here.


Loons sleep on the water by tucking their head back onto their body. You may see them take naps during the day. Loons also spend part of their day resting and drifting along the water. This is perfectly normal for a loon!

Resting or lethargic? When resting or sleeping, the loons will still be aware of their surroundings and will move away if people or other threats approach. Loons on recreational lakes have become more habituated to people, but should still swim or dive away. Photo by Trista Snapko.

Leg Tucked or Raised

Sometimes while a loon is preening or resting, they might tuck one of their legs under a wing or raise it slightly out of the water to regulate their temperature. It is sometimes mistaken for a broken or even missing leg! Loons can even tuck one leg and use the other to slowly paddle forward when relaxed.

This photo shows a common loon drifting with its left leg raised out of the water. You can also see another example of the colored bands that are sometimes mistaken for entangled loons.

Foot Waggle

Both adults and chicks stick their legs out and shake them in a foot waggle. This can be to stretch or help them regulate their body temperature. It’s sometimes mistaken for an injured leg, but it’s a normal movement.

Another example of the colored bands: you can see the bands clearly on the right leg, while the loon does the foot waggle, and the flash of colors through the water of the two bands on the left leg. Photo by Katy Dahl.

Wing Rowing/Territorial Behaviors

Territorial behavior includes displays like the penguin dance, calling, and even fighting. To quickly escape, they may use their wings like paddles to “row” across the surface of the water. Loons may wing row away from other threats too. These displays may look alarming, but are normal behavior.

Photo by Trista Snapko.

Hangover Position

A nesting loon that feels threatened will lower its head into the hangover position and remain still. This is sometimes mistaken for something being amiss or even a dead loon! If you see this behavior during May to early July, you are too close! Try moving away to let the loon resume incubating its eggs undisturbed. 

Photo by Judd Brink.