• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Common Loon


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The eerie calls of Common Loons echo across clear lakes of the northern wilderness. Summer adults are regally patterned in black and white. In winter, they are plain gray above and white below, and you’ll find them close to shore on most seacoasts and a good many inland reservoirs and lakes. Common Loons are powerful, agile divers that catch small fish in fast underwater chases. They are less suited to land, and typically come ashore only to nest.

Merlin Bird ID app
Drink Birds & Beans coffee. Save our birds.

Keys to identification Help

Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Common Loons are large, diving waterbirds with rounded heads and dagger-like bills. They have long bodies and short tails that are usually not visible. In flight, they look stretched out, with a long, flat body and long neck and bill. Their feet stick out beyond the tail (unlike ducks and cormorants), looking like wedges.

  • Color Pattern

    In summer, adults have a black head and bill, a black-and-white spotted back, and a white breast. From September to March, adults are plain gray on the back and head with a white throat. The bill also fades to gray. Juveniles look similar, but with more pronounced scalloping on the back.

  • Behavior

    Common Loons are stealthy divers, submerging without a splash to catch fish. Pairs and groups often call to each other at night. In flight, notice their shallow wingbeats and unwavering, bee-lined flight path.

  • Habitat

    Common Loons breed on quiet, remote freshwater lakes of the northern U.S. and Canada, and they are sensitive to human disturbance. In winter and during migration, look for them on lakes, rivers, estuaries, and coastlines.

Range Map Help

Common Loon Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    Common Loon

    Breeding adult
    • Large and heavy-bodied with thick neck
    • Distinctive black and white pattern on back and wings
    • Partial white collar on neck
    • Glossy black head with thick, black bill, and red eyes
    • © Josh Merrill, Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, July 2009
  • Breeding adult

    Common Loon

    Breeding adult
    • Heavy-bodied waterbird with dagger-like, black bill
    • Thick black neck with white-patterned collar
    • Black and white patterned back
    • Glossy black head
    • © J.M. Kosciw, Battersea, Ontario, Canada, August 2009
  • Breeding adult

    Common Loon

    Breeding adult
    • Large and heavy-bodied
    • Small wings
    • Glossy black head with thick, black bill
    • Bright white belly and partial white collar on neck
    • © Andy Johnson, Interlochen, Michigan, August 2010
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Common Loon

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Large and heavy-bodied
    • Thick neck and stout, gray-black bill
    • Gray scalloped back
    • White throat and chest
    • © Jim Paris, Barnegat Inlet, New Jersey, December 2008
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Common Loon

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Large-headed and heavy-bodied
    • Thick, dagger-like bill
    • Dark gray back
    • Plain white throat and chest
    • © Cameron Rognan, Humboldt Bay, California, August 2006
  • Juvenile

    Common Loon

    • Large and heavy-bodied with stout, silver-gray bill
    • Fine scalloping on gray back
    • Partial white collar
    • © Bill Lynch, Shark River Inlet, New Jersey, December 2010
  • Juvenile

    Common Loon

    • Large and heavy-bodied with thick neck
    • Juvenile is paler and more sandy-colored than adult
    • Fine scalloping on back
    • Stout, pale gray bill
    • © Jim Paris, Barnegat Inlet, New Jersey, January 2011
  • Breeding adult on nest

    Common Loon

    Breeding adult on nest
    • Distinctive black and white markings on back and wings
    • Glossy black head with glowing red eyes
    • Dagger-like black bill
    • Violet sheen on glossy black neck with partial white collar
    • © Mike Wisnicki, Bonaparte Lake, British Columbia, Canada, May 2011
  • Breeding adult with chick

    Common Loon

    Breeding adult with chick
    • Heavy-bodied with dagger-like, black bill
    • Adult distinctive with black and white markings
    • Chick fluffy dark gray overall
    • © Stuart Oikawa, Nopiming Provincial Park, Manitoba, Canada, July 2011
  • Breeding adult in flight

    Common Loon

    Breeding adult in flight
    • Distinctive shape in flight with legs trailing behind short tail
    • Neck extended with obvious, dagger-like bill
    • Slender wings
    • White below with solid black head
    • © Andy Johnson, Bass Lake, Michigan, July 2009

Similar Species

  • Nonbreeding adult

    Red-throated Loon

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Smaller and more delicate than Common Loon
    • Slender bill, often pointed upward
    • Bright white face surrounding small, dark eye
    • Distinctive white speckling on gray back
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Monterey Harbor, California, January 2007
  • Immature

    Red-throated Loon

    • Smaller and more slender than Common Loon
    • Thin bill, often pointed upward
    • Gray back with faint white speckling
    • Dull gray neck with no obvious collar or pattern
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Moss Landing, California, April 2007
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Pacific Loon

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Smaller than Common Loon
    • Even division between gray and white on neck
    • No obvious collar mark
    • Thin, dark "chinstrap" sometimes visible
    • © Jim Gilbert, Deal, New Jersey, March 2007
  • Nonbreeding adult with Common Loons

    Pacific Loon

    Nonbreeding adult with Common Loons
    • Pacific (in foreground) smaller and more slender-billed than Common Loons (in background)
    • Even separation between gray and white on neck
    • Thin "chinstrap" usually visible on adults
    • © Jim Gilbert, Deal, New Jersey, March 2007
  • Juvenile

    Double-crested Cormorant

    • Similar to Common Loon at a distance
    • Hooked yellow bill distinctive
    • Longer neck than loons
    • No white on chest or throat
    • © Bill Thompson, Provincetown, Massachusetts, November 2011

Similar Species

Red-throated Loons and Pacific Loons are smaller than Common Loons, with more slender-bills. They are more fond of saltwater than Common Loons. Red-throated Loons tends to hold their dainty bills pointed upward, above horizontal. Pacific Loons have thinner bills and more smoothly rounded heads than Common Loons. In winter Pacific Loons, gray meets white in a straight line running down the neck, whereas for Common Loons in winter, this smooth pattern is broken by a partial white collar. Double-crested Cormorants have more slender, orange or yellow bills with hooked tips (the hook can be hard to see at distance). They are more uniformly dark than Common Loons. Western Grebes have much longer necks than Common Loons, with needle-like yellowish bills. Male Common Mergansers show considerably more white on the body than Common Loons, and in flight both sexes show white patches in the wings that Common Loons lack.

Find This Bird

On a North Woods lake in summer, loons stick out conspicuously as large, tuxedoed birds swimming about in the middle of the lake. They can be very vocal and easy to locate, as the yodeling of one loon will often elicit a chorus response from other loons in the area. In winter, loons adopt a much quieter profile along coastal waters, wearing drab, gray plumage. They typically stay close to shore, though, so a scan out to sea with your binoculars will often reveal loons hidden among the waves.

You Might Also Like

Spirit of the North: an intimate portrait of the Common Loon. Story and photos in Living Bird magazine.