Picture this… it’s a calm, quiet night and you’re sitting by the shore. What do you see? The stars? The moon? The shapes of pine and oak trees all around? What do you smell? Perhaps a campfire? Now, what do you hear?

A loon, right? Chances are you’re imagining the call of a loon. After all, it seems to be the symbolic sound of the Canadian wilderness. People LOVE how loons sound! In fact, we’re loony for loon calls! TV and movie producers love to toss in a loon call into the background whenever they want to make the scene feel peaceful or wild.

Did you know that there are actually four main calls loons use to talk to each other? There’s the wail, the tremolo, the yodel, and the hoot. Each call has a different meaning. Let’s find out what the loons are saying to each other with these four types of calls.

1. The Wail

The wail is mainly used as a CONTACT CALL. The loon makes this call to say “I am here. Where are you?” They often wail if they are far away from their mate or chicks and want to find out where everyone is. Listen to the wail here.

2. The Tremolo

The tremolo is used when loons are AGITATED, such as if they see something that makes them worried. For example, they might make this call if you come too close in your boat or if an airplane flies low overhead and they feel scared. Loons sometimes use the tremolo as an announcement to tell other loons they are on the lake. The tremolo is also called the “crazy laugh” and might be what inspired the saying “crazy as a loon”. Listen to the tremolo here.

3. The Yodel

The yodel is mainly a TERRITORIAL call, but sometimes loons yodel if they feel threatened by a predator. Male loons use yodels to tell other loons “This is my territory!” Male loons care a lot about their territories and will fight another male that tries to take over. If the new male wins the fight, he takes over the original male’s territory and then yodels to let other loons know he’s new. What’s really neat is that the loon will change the sound of his yodel any time he claims a new territory. This really helps advertise to the other loons that he’s the new loon on the lake. Listen to the yodel here.

4. The Hoot

Hoots are softer, quieter sounds that loons make to each other when they are close by. A loon might hoot at its chicks or at its mate, just to say “Hey, I’m here”. Listen to a hoot here.

Next time you hear a loon calling, see if you can tell which type of call it’s using and what it might be saying! The best time to listen for loons is during the evening, at night, and at dawn. Can’t wait until next time you hear a loon? Try making a loon call using your hands in the activity below! And hey, if you can’t quite get it, there’s nothing wrong with just using your voice to make the loon calls! 

Activity: “Hand-made” Loon Call

1. Press your fingers together and curve each hand into a C-shape. 

2. While keeping your hands in this shape, press your hands together so that the back edge of one hand (including outside edge of the pinkie finger) presses onto the base of the fingers of your other hand. While keeping your fingers on each hand pressed tightly together, bend your fingers so that they curve over your other hand. 

3. The idea is to create an air pocket inside your hands, and to make sure your hands and fingers are pressed together so there are no gaps surrounding that air pocket.

4. Press the sides of your thumbs together, but leave a narrow space between your thumb joints and the base of your thumbs. 

5. Put your thumb joints up to your lips, while making sure the hole between your thumbs is below your lips and still open to the air.

6. Keep your lips relaxed and hold your tongue back a little while you slowly blow onto your thumb joints. See if you can get a sound. You might need to adjust the position of your lips and make sure the only hole around your air pocket is the one between your thumbs.

7. Keep practising – you may not get it right away!