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Loons General

Loons General

Loon was plentiful for cultures in Northern Canada and Alaska [1]. The bird is reported to have been hunted by Nuxalk, Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw), Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth), Kaska, Labrador Inuit, Round Lake Ojibwa (Anishinabek) and Cree (Red Earth, Attawapiskat, James Bay), among others [2-13]. Loons were also sometimes hunted by the Puget Sound Indigenous People [14].


Loons were usually hunted in summer, but some cultures also sought them during spring and fall migrations. Those reported to have hunted in spring and summer include Wainwright Inupiat, Yukon cultures, Chipewyan, Waswanipi (Cree), James Bay Cree and Montagnais (Innu) [15-20]. The Kutchin (Gwich’in) and Han noted that spring and fall migrations were the best times to hunt loon [21, 22].

Loons were hunted with spears, bows and arrows (some used bunting arrows) and rifles; bare hands were used to twist the neck; canoes and torches were sometimes used; loons were lured by hunters mimicking the loon call or flashing a reflective object in the sunlight [16-19, 23].

The Coast Salish hunted loon with duck spears that varied in design. The Samish and the Lummi, for instance, used wooden shafts with pointed barbs of bone, yew or ironwood. Hunters would go out in canoes and quietly approach a flock of loons. The birds would become startled. If a man held out his spear, the birds would fly right into the barbs. Alternatively, if the loons were not close enough, the hunters would launch the spears at the flocks. Coast Salish men would also seize loons with their hands: two hunters would go out in a canoe and the man paddling in front would grab the birds [24].

Among Wainwright Inupiat, loons were valued by the elderly, but the birds were often given to dogs. During spring and summer hunts, loons were shot from land or ice. Loon made a good meal for those stranded on drift-ice: the hunter hid behind the ice, as he would with a blind [18]. Similarly, the Peel River Kutchin would eat loon to keep from starving during lean seasons. [21, 22].

The Mistissini Cree used bows and arrows in summer. Hunters would lure the birds by imitating their calls. When a loon was killed, a wing feather was often thrust through the nostrils. Loons were important food sources when larger game was scarce [8, 25-27]. The Micmac (Mi'kmaq) hunted loons from canoes: at night, hunters used birch-bark torches to hunt the large waterfowl [28].


Loon flesh was boiled, broiled or dried. In the far North, the taste of loon was not enjoyed by many [23]. Although seldom eaten by Yukon cultures, when they were, they were consumed fresh or hung to dry for later use [19].

The Attawapiskat boiled loon, leaving the heart, lungs and kidneys attached, but the windpipe was not eaten. Boiling the carcass made a good broth to drink with the meal. The head, wings and lower legs were soaked in warm water to help remove the feathers; these parts were also boiled. Women and children left alone in camp would often eat the heads, wings and legs of loons [7].

The Chipewyan also boiled loons at the campsite. In the bush, however, the birds were usually roasted over an open fire. Since the feathers of the loon were difficult to pluck, they were burned off in the fire before the bird was butchered [17].

In spring, Mistissini hunters who were not returning home soon would bury the birds in the snow. Back at camp, the carcasses were plucked, but the head and pinions were not. The down and small feathers were separated from the larger feathers. The pinions and upper mandibles were then removed. The bird was then hung by its wing on a stick, and the pinfeathers and down were singed off with a fire. The singed areas were scraped before and after the bird was dipped in warm water [26].

“Loon flat dumplings” were a favourite recipe of the Quebec Cree at Fort George [4]. Among the Montagnais of the St. Lawrence, a successful hunter would share loons with his relatives or distribute the meat at feasts [20].


Loon eggs were reportedly relished by the Coast Salish and Micmac [28-30]. Inuit also gathered loon eggs [31].

Uses other than food

Blackfoot and Plains cultures filled loon skins with grass or hemp to be used inside ceremonial medicine bundles. The Arikara also used loon skin to make these parcels [32, 33]. In Alaska, coats were made from loon skin [34]. The warm moisture-proof skin was also used to make a seat [18]. Northwest Coast cultures used loon feathers for beds, pillows and hair decorations at festivals [14, 35]. Hare used loon beaks to make arrowheads and awls; the feathers were used to stuff pillows and blankets; the wing-feathers were made into brooms [35]. The loon has been featured in many ceremonial masks in the Arctic, and the ceremonial “loon dance” displayed elaborate headdresses. In another dance, the “whale-dance”, half-naked men wore loon-skins over their heads [34].

Beliefs and taboos

Many cultures avoided eating loon, often because they were considered too tough and too difficult to pluck, among other reasons [36]. Cultures reported to have refrained from eating loon include the Kaska, Gitksan (Gitxsan) and Upper Stalo [10, 37-39]. The Kutenai (Kootenai) did not eat loon, but they did observe this majestic bird, as it warned of coming storms [40]. The Eyak did not hunt loon because a story describes a boy turning into one [41]. Loon was known as a “witch” by the Iroquois and Micmac, and as such was not considered edible [42, 43].

In the Yukon, loon was one of the few birds associated with superhuman and ceremonial greatness. Among various groups, the wail of the loon was thought to predict rain. Shamans frequently called upon the loon as a spirit helper. Loons were said to swim close to shore and circle in a clockwise ritual. The people of the Yukon tell the story of how loon cured a blind man. The Milky Way is a symbol representing this legend [37]. The Blackfoot held great respect for the loon, who could dive very deep and was known as the “Handsome Charger” [33].

Red-throated Loon

The Red-throated Loon, referred to locally as wabby or wobby, was eaten by Han, Hare, Inuvialuit, Wainwright Inupiat, James Bay Cree and Labrador Inuit [14, 18, 22, 35, 44-46]. Many Inuit preferred Red-throated Loon over other loons species [23]. In summer, Inuit hunted Red-throated Loons, which were difficult to kill with arrows, so bullets were used instead [31, 47]. Wainwright Inupiat would sometimes shoot Red-throated Loons swimming in the water, but this was not an easy task. Young men enjoyed the challenge. The flock was easily approached; the Red-throated Loon seemed unafraid of boats. But, after the shots, the hunters would chase the wounded birds as they dove for cover. Hunters had to be cautious: a wounded loon was likely to attack with its sharp beak and kayakers were reportedly killed by such attacks [18]. Inuit also gathered Red-throated Loon eggs [31].

Pacific Loon

The Pacific Loon was eaten across much of the Arctic, including Northern Alaska, the Mackenzie Delta, Franklin Bay and Coronation Gulf [31] and by Hare, Inuvialuit, Han, Wainwright Inupiat and Ontario First Nations [18, 22, 35, 45, 48]. Pacific Loons were also hunted by Ontario First Nations in summer [48] and by Han in spring and fall [22]. Pacific Loons were unafraid of boats, so hunters could easily approach the bird with canoes [18].  Inuit also gathered Pacific Loon eggs [31]. The Arikara used Pacific Loon skins to make ceremonial medicine bundles [32, 33].

Common Loon

The Common Loon, also known as the great northern diver, is reported to have been eaten by northern cultures including Wainwright Inupiat. Hunters would lure the flocks by imitating their calls and shooting the birds from behind a blind on land or from a boat [18, 31]. The Common Loon was also eaten by Nuxalk, Hare (Sahtu), Tlingit, Inuvialuit and James Bay Cree [35, 45, 46, 49]. The Nuxalk used a bow and a special bird arrow to hunt the Common Loon [12]. 

Yellow-billed Loon

The Yellow-billed Loon, also known as the white-billed diver, was summer food for some cultures. The feathers and beak of the Yellow-billed Loon were also used to decorate ceremonial head-dresses, and the head and bill of this beautiful bird were made into amulets [34].


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Loons General

Loons General

Loons are a family of duck-like birds spending their entire life closely associated with water. Most loons spend the winter in coastal waters and migrate inland in the spring to breed and summer on freshwater lakes. Most loons migrate individually or in small groups of less than 15 birds, traveling during the day and resting on open water during the night. They are awkward walkers, with their legs set far back on their body and have difficulties taking off with their dense bones, but are excellent at swimming and diving.  In the spring, while still at the ocean, loons molt their feathers all at once and turn from their mostly gray or brown winter plumage to their mostly black and white breeding plumage. They feed mainly on fish whether in the ocean or in freshwater, but will also eat crustaceans, snails, and frogs. Eggs, generally two, are incubated by both parents and hatch after around 30 days into precocial chicks able to move around and feed themselves, but for the first two weeks, spending most of their time riding on their parents back [1]. Loons are territorial and are known for their loud, beautiful, and haunting vocalizations. In North America, loons include the Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata), the Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), the Common Loon (Gavia immer), and the Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii).

Red-throated Loon

The Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata) breeds across the arctic and subarctic, mainly along coastal waters, and spends the winter either along the Pacific or Atlantic coast. They are the smallest loon, weighing between 1 and 2.7 kg, and during the breeding season, they are the only loon with a rusty red patch on the foreneck and very little white on their back. They have a dark slender bill, pale gray head and neck, fine black and white stripes at the base of the neck, and white underparts. Red-throated loons prefer to nest around large water bodies of low coastal wetlands and often reuse the same nest site. They are monogamous, likely forming lifetime couples, and they can live for up to 30 years. Arctic foxes, jaegers, and gulls are important egg predators, while seals might take adult birds in the ocean [2].

Pacific Loon

The Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica) is an abundant loon, breeding on freshwater ponds across the arctic and subarctic and spending the winter along the Pacific coast. They were previously considered the same species as the Arctic Loon, a very similar species found mainly around Alaska. They are small to medium-sized loon, weighing between 1 and 2.5 kg, with red eyes and a dark slender bill. In the breeding season, they have a light gray head, nape, and hindneck, a black foreneck bordered by fine vertical white stripes, and a black back with rows of large white spots. They form monogamous pairs in the spring while waiting on coastal waters for inland ice to thaw [3].

Common Loon

The Common Loon (Gavia immer) is a common and widespread North American loon, breeding throughout Canada and overwintering either along the Pacific or the Atlantic coast. They are well-known for their yodel-like call during the breeding season. They are large loons, weighing between 2.2 and 7.6 kg, with a slender dark bill and a completely black head, a collar of black and white vertical stripes, and a checkered black and white back in their breeding plumage. During the breeding season, they are most often found on large lakes with clear water, irregular shorelines, and abundant fish prey [4].

Yellow-billed Loon

The Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii) is relatively rare and breeds in the arctic tundra, from Nunavut to Alaska, and spends the winter along the Pacific coast, from southern Alaska to around Vancouver Island. In the breeding season, they closely resemble Common Loons, but are slightly larger and have a pale yellow bill and fewer vertical stripes on their collar [5].


1.         Dunning J: The loon: voice of the wilderness. Dublin, NH: Yankee Books; 1985.

2.         Barr JF, Eberl C, Mcintyre JW: Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 2000.

3.         Russell RW: Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 2002.

4.         Evers DC, Paruk JD, Mcintyre JW, Barr JF: Common Loon (Gavia immer). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 2010.

5.         North MR: Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii). In: The Birds of North America Online. Edited by Poole A. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; 1994.


Distribution maps provided below, unless otherwise stated, were obtained from Birds of North America Online, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and all pictures provided below were obtained from Encyclopedia of Life
Red-throated Loon
Supplier: Biopix
Pacific Loon
Photographer: Bowman, Tim
Common Loon
© Jerry Oldenettel
Supplier: Flickr: EOL Images
Photographer: Jerry Oldenettel
Yellow-billed Loon
Supplier: Wikimedia Commons
Photographer: Richard Crossley