Loon legs

The signature bird of the northern forests, the Common Loon, is an adept swimmer and diver, a speedy flyer (up to 70 mph on migration), but a pathetic walker.

common loons

With their spear-shaped bills, conical heads, and torpedo-shaped bodies, these are sleek aquatic machines capable of chasing and gobbling up fish underwater.

Pushing the adaptation for efficiency in the water by moving the legs far back on its body to act like propellers has made this bird totally unsuited for a terrestrial existence.

common loon stretching its leg

You can’t really appreciate just how far back the loon’s legs are, even when you see the bird stretching those legs while on the water.

common loon flying

This view of a loon flying overhead illustrates just how far back the leg placement is.

Walking on land requires leg placement under the body, not behind it, such that the center of gravity of the mass of the bird is more or less right over the legs which support it.

bird leg postition in gull, duck, swan, and pelican

Heavier-bodied birds might waddle a bit as they walk but at least they are upright and mobile on land.

Loons only come on land to mate and to tend to the eggs in their nest, which they place close to the water’s edge.  Instead of getting their legs under them to stand upright, they use those rear-placed legs to shove them forward on their bellies.

common-loon-moving-on-land

A “bird” out of water:  kind of awkward.  Photo from: birdinginformation.com

And as the video below shows, their movement onto their nest is slow and awkward. (You might want to turn down the volume of sound when playing the video. The loon moves onshore to its nest at about 0:40 into the video.)

18 thoughts on “Loon legs

  1. Wow. I knew that loon legs were far back, but I didn’t realize that they are so far back that walking is actually not an option! This tells me that they must always have access to open water for safety as well as their food source. The United States Geological Survey has tracked loons over their migration and have found that these loons migrated South to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter. The animated location data can be seen here: http://www.umesc.usgs.gov/terrestrial/migratory_birds/loons/migrations.html

    You have to love those loons…nothing makes you feel like you are in Northern MN more than the call of a loon off a lake.

    • I agree, nothing feels so Minnesota as the call of the loon at sunset or sunrise over a lake. Thanks for the link. Very interesting!

  2. Years ago, a photographer friend caught a loon flying onto the shore – just off the ground, coasting in for a landing. We wrote a short paper about it; I’ll send you a copy.

  3. I read once that if a Loon mistakes a wet piece of pavement or ice for water and lands on it, they will be unable to ‘take off’ and will starve to death. Your post today really shows why. Fascinating.

  4. Fascinating. I didn’t realize loons couldn’t walk. But then, I’ve never seen a loon out of water. In fact, we rarely get loons in Northern Illinois.

  5. Thanks for posting this info and video Sue. We saw a loon cruising in front of our cottage (near Parry Sound, Ontario) today with one leg stretched out behind. I thought he (or she) may have injured the leg, but I guess he was just stretching it out!

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