To Catch a Loon
If you heard “To Catch a Loon,” our first episode of Telemetry, where we explored the surprising world of loon conservation, then you probably heard a lot of loon calling. Did you know that loons have four different calls: the yodel, the wail, the hoot, and the tremolo?
The yodel is a call of territoriality. It’s unique in that it has a voiceprint, almost like a fingerprint. In the early days of loon research, before a reliable capture technique was established, scientists tried to use the voiceprint as a way to identify individual birds. Interestingly, only male loons yodel and sometimes one male will try to mimic another male’s call, probably in an attempt to move in on his territory. Scientists can interpret a lot about an individual loon from its yodel: the pitch or tone of the call gives scientists clues about the size and body condition of that loon, and the number of repeated phrases added on to the yodel can reflect a loon’s willingness to fight and defend its territory.
Take a listen to a yodel call:
The wail is more of a long distance contact call: “I’m over here, where are you?” You can hear a nice loon wail at the beginning of “To Catch a Loon”, at the 26 second mark:
The hoot is a contact call for the chick, which can be heard in the story during the capture sequence as a response to the scientists mimicking chick calls (6 minutes, 31 seconds).
The tremolo is a staccato call. It’s the only call that loons give while they’re in the air and it’s basically used as an alarm: “Something’s not right here. I’m concerned, so don’t come any closer.” In our loon story, listen for the tremolo starting at the 6 minute mark, right after the scientists make their first “scoop attempt” during capture.
The call of the loon is something that has always resonated with me. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.Who can forget the loons of On Golden Pond —the symbolic metaphor they were for the cycle of life.
In “To Catch a Loon,” one of the researchers talks about our connection with loons as our greater connection with nature: “Loons are a high-profile species. They sing and they dance. They attract people’s attention and people fall in love with them without ever being a biologist. You fall in love with any species and you suddenly realize the complexity of the whole natural web of life.”
We’re all caught up together in that web. Think about that the next time you’re lucky enough to hear the call of the loon ring out in the wild.