What do loon calls mean?

Loons are famous for their iconic calls, but how much do we really know about them? Do you know the difference between a contact call and an alarm call? Hear from a loon biologist on the science behind loon calls in the video below.

Learn the science behind loon calls.

In the video below, Mandaamin (Ava) wonders what her favorite loon call means. She poses this question to Dr. Walter Piper, who shares the science behind loon calls. Dr. Piper is a professor of biology at Chapman University in Orange, California, and a loon biologist.

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There are four primary loon calls.

Common Loons produce a great variety of vocalizations, some of which carry long distances and others that are soft and function as communication between pair members or between adults and chicks. Not all loon calls have been described, so it is difficult to provide an exact count of the number of call types. Here is a list of the best known loon calls and their likely meaning.

Yodel (territorial call)
Listen to the Yodel

The yodel is a loud, lengthy call, emitted by males only, that functions in defense of territory and chicks. Yodels are heard much less frequently than most other calls but occur when territorial intruders are flying over a lake or have just departed from it. Males yodel frequently when defending small chicks, especially when they have two chicks instead of just one, as the yodel is an effective means to prevent intruders from landing and approaching. The yodel of each male is unique, and it conveys information about his body size. Old males yodel far more often than young males. This is thought to reflect desperate efforts of older males to hold onto their territories for an additional year or two near the end of their lives.

Wail (long range call)
Listen to the Wail

The wail is the call most frequently heard by humans. A loud, long-range call that can occur as one, two, or three notes. The wail seems to function as a contact call that notifies a pair member of the location of its mate, after they have become separated. The wail clearly also serves as a low-intensity alarm call, because it is often given when eagles pass overhead or are perched nearby.

Tremolo (warning call)
Listen to the Tremolo

The tremolo is the familiar, loud call that sounds like human laughter. But sounds are deceiving, as the tremolo is chiefly a close-range alarm call that adult loons produce when they or their chicks are threatened by eagles, large aquatic vertebrates, or humans that venture too close to them.

Hoot and Various Soft Calls
Listen to the Hoot

The hoot is a short, soft single note produced by pair members in the presence of their mate. While we do not understand the precise function of the hoot, it might serve to maintain a strong pair bond. Another soft call is the soft wail, which is a courtship call. The toot is a high-pitched, more intense version of the hoot, and signals an intruder has been spotted. The maa call sounds like human humming and occurs when loons are nest searching along the shore.

Loon size and call frequency chart.

Large loons produce low frequency yodels and small loons produce high frequency yodels. However, research suggests that a loon’s frequency gets higher as it gets older. If you hear a low-pitched yodel, what can you infer about the size, and possibly age, of the loon?

The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) awarded the National Loon Center a $4,000,000 grant to help fund the project. Learn more about LCCMR at lccmr.leg.mn.

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