May 2023
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse

Common Loon, part 2

Last month I wrote about being involved in the rescue of an uncommon winter visitor. Contrary to its name, the common loon is a species that appears in Arizona only in low numbers. With effort, though, they can usually be found somewhere in AZ all year. They most often appear during the winter and tend to stay awhile. Their graceful, low-slung frames remind me of a submarine coasting along the surface, then rapidly diving in search of its quarry.

Ryan Crouse

When we left off last month, we had an irritated loon enclosed in a cat carrier, filling my store’s back room with the distinct smell of fish. This smell probably has something to do with one of their key survival traits. Since loons spend most of their lives on water, insulating, watertight feathers are a must. Loons possess two different types of feathers, contour feathers and down feathers. The down feathers are very similar to the goose down we fill winter jackets with, and for good reason. This dense undercoat acts as an insulated jacket, trapping heat against the skin. Also, cool blood coming from the uninsulated feet of the bird is warmed by adjacent arteries before it returns to the body. This is called a ‘double-shunt’ system, and coupled with the downy undercoat it provides the loon with amazing tolerance for cold conditions.

While the thick down is very effective, it does have an Achilles heel. When it gets wet it loses much of its warming properties and will instead trap cold water against the bird’s body. This is a huge issue for a bird that lives almost exclusively on water.

The second type of feathers, the contour feathers, provide the down feathers with a shield against the moist environment. These stiff, tightly fitted feathers are reasonably water repellent on their own, but they require an added layer of protection. The loon drags its beak along a gland at the base of the tail and transfers the viscous secretion onto the feathers as it preens. This is the same concept as rubbing mink oil into your favorite winter boots. Although I have not been able to confirm this through research, I’m willing to bet that the fishy odor emanating from our feathered friend can be largely attributed to this oleaginous adaptation.

What does this all mean for the lost loon in our care? Its means that the night spent on the side of an intermountain Arizona highway during blizzard conditions was survivable! Part of staying warm though, is the constant intake of nutrient-rich calories from their aquatic diet. When discovered it had been at least 18 hours since the loon had eaten. Most humans would find this to be an uncomfortable state of affairs, but the elevated metabolism of the smaller loon makes this a more immediate concern.

With that in mind my son Braeden and I loaded the hungry bird into the back of my SUV and we made our way toward one of Prescott’s marquee bodies of water, Willow Lake. With the elevated lake levels I was confident it’d be able to find adequate deep water for hunting. The part of Willow Lake we chose had less human traffic than the deeper Watson Lake, and I wanted to make the release as smooth and stress-free as possible. Either way I knew the bird would be happy to trade its cat-carrier situation for even a puddle!

As I feared, the ten-minute drive was punctuated with what I can only describe as musky fish filling our nostrils. We arrived at the lake’s north shore and quickly removed our smelly friend. Braeden gingerly transported the carrier to the shore and we lowered the entire container into the lake, allowing it to fill with the frigid February water. As the water was introduced to the loon, it became obviously excited by this development. I instructed Braeden to stand clear and slowly open the door. The loon wasted no time hitting the exit and slipped right back into its element. It lingered in the area for a moment, then like a high-speed schooner it slid into deeper water with its next meal in mind.

While I do not believe we hold dominion over nature, we can certainly be stewards, and involving young people in this process is time well spent.

Update: 2023 Bird Challenge

In March I added several species to my 2023 The Lookout Birding Challenge list. These include the greater white-fronted goose, common blackhawk, violet-green swallow, vermilion flycatcher and painted redstart. I also had a zone-tailed hawk fly over my yard, a first for that location. For a leg up on distinguishing zone-tailed hawks from similar species, be sure to read my 5enses column from May 2022.

My year-count now stands at 112 species!

Migration is really heating up at this point. The next four weeks are a great opportunity to see beautiful birds before the relative calm of breeding season sets in. We can study vocalizations and other breeding behaviors at length, possibly including any number of species-specific mating displays. The mild days and heightened desire to find a mate mean that birds are more likely to be active through the day. April is prime time in central AZ!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at