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The bird of the North

Travelling through ‘Cottage Country’, that belt of land north of Toronto where many Canadians (and, indeed, quite a few Americans) own holiday-cottages by the shore of the region’s many lakes, I have not only experienced wonderful hospitality and the truly breathtaking sight of The Colours (it’s that time of year), but also the opportunity to see birds which I would never see back home.

There are chickadees, cardinals, blue herons, turkey-vultures and American black ducks. No North American bird, though, is as fascinating as the loon.

I refer in particular to the common loon (gavia immer, also known as the great northern diver); the four other species of loon listed in my field guide do not tend to be found in Ontario (preferring, as they do, to summer in the far north or on the west coast).

Loons, which spend most of their lives on or under water (they can dive deeper and for longer than all other birds) require near-pristine conditions to nest, so their presence on any given body of water is often seen as a sign of the good condition of said lake; their numbers declined heavily in the Sixties and Seventies but since then, conservation efforts (such as the banning of lead weights for fishing in addition to restrictions on hunting) have led to a revival in loon numbers – even on lakes which have a lot of cottages.

This is very significant, as the loon is highly symbolic of the wilderness – or, as it is known in these parts, the North. You know you’re in the North when you hear the call of the loon emanating from somewhere out on the lake.

There have always been links between loons and native folklore; for example, the loon is said to be the messenger of Kuloshap, the creator-god of the Algonquin people. Indeed, no bird – with the exception of the eagle – features so prominently in folk tales and legends. Central to this place in legend is the bird’s call, usually described as ‘haunting’ or ‘eerie’. The loons actually has four calls: “Wails, tremolos, yodels and hoots ... together, the four calls add an air of magic to the often silent world of the wild. Together, they are the sound of the North.”

The loon’s high status continues to this day, for it is both the provincial bird of Ontario and the state bird of Minnesota, and even features on Canadian money – which is why the one-dollar coin is popularly known as the ‘loonie’.

No trip to Cottage Country is complete without getting to see and hear the loon.

Fred J. Alsop III, Birds of Canada (Dorling Kindersley, 2005)
Doug Bennet & Tim Tiner, Up North: A Guide to Ontario’s Wilderness from Blackflies to the Northern Lights (McClelland & Stewart, 1993)
Robert H. Busch, Loons (Whitecap Books, 1999)

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