Two adult loons swim with their chick, diving for food and surfacing to feed the young one.

Please Pass the Fish

Loons are world-class divers.

But not the young ones; at least not for several weeks. On a recent Algonquin paddling trip, I noticed Common Loon parents diving for fish and then surfacing to pass the goodies to their chicks. The fluffy-feathered kids appeared to be good swimmers and sometimes they disappeared momentarily under the water. So why weren’t they foraging their own food?

The answer, it turns out, is in those fluffy feathers.

We had no cell signal during our six-day paddle, so I had plenty of loon questions when we left the park. Three heartbeats after re-entry into the cellular world, I did my own dive into Cornell’s Birds of North America to get some answers.

I learned that one key to the loons’ diving finesse is their ability to compress their feathers. The chicks I saw were not fully feathered, and their downy fluff trapped air, making them buoyant.  Loon chicks do dive starting their first week, but it takes eight weeks to develop the feathers-and the skill-to dive and forage independently.

Here are some clips of loon parents feeding a kid. The fourth (and last) feeding pass is a little different from the others. It looks to me like the parent is showing, but not passing, the food. Instead, the parent drops (or dangles?) it into the water.

Do you think mom or dad was teaching an underwater retrieval skill? Or was that stringy morsel tangled in the parent’s bill, needing to be washed free in the water?

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