by Dennis Dalman
Do loons sneeze?
Kids, who say the darnedest things, also ask some of the darnedest questions: Do loons sneeze?
An elementary-school student asked that question of author and loon-enthusiast Bob Kutter, who was delighted and later, chuckling, told many others about it. Well, lo and behold, one day Kutter received a video tape from one of his former language-arts students. The video showed a loon sneezing or – well, at least – appearing to be in the middle of a sneezing fit.
Kutter, who lives on Big Birch Lake near Grey Eagle, recently spoke at one of the Sartell Senior Connection’s Thursday morning “Coffee and Conversation” gatherings at Country Manor.
Kutter is the author of The Littlest Loon, a children’s storybook he wrote, based on an actual incident that happened near his lake home. One day in the summer of 2010, Kutter and many neighbors noticed a lone loon chick, recently hatched, in late June, much later than most normal hatchings. The little loon was alone, his parents not in sight. Everyone pondered what to do. Finally, Kutter and his wife, Nancy, boated over to the stranded chick, scooped it up in a fishing net and brought it over to the middle of the lake where they’d spotted some adult loons. As soon as the Kutters released the chick, the two loons – apparently its parents – were at its side in a split second.
“I mean, they were there like NOW!” said Kutter, snapping his fingers. “In an instant.”
And later, to everyone’s happy satisfaction, the little loon could be seen often by lake dwellers, riding on the back of one of its parents. Then along came Nov. 21, a lake ice-up, when all the loons on the lake – including, presumably, the once-lost loon, up and flew east and south for the winter.
Kutter’s storybook recounts that story in language that can be understood by children as young as kindergarten. The book was illustrated by Debra Johnson, a retired educator and friend of the Kutters, also from Grey Eagle. Johnson also spoke at the “Coffee and Conversation” meeting, telling listeners how nervous and hesitant she was when asked to illustrate the book. Up to then, she had only dabbled in art. The assignment was a daunting challenge, but after lots of research and false starts, she finally managed to make the story come to visual life with her pastel drawings.
The Kutters, too, are both retired educators.
After watching loons on their lake for years, the Kutters have learned quite a lot about the fascinating birds, knowledge they enjoy sharing with others.
When a loon chick is hatched in late June or July (as in Kutter’s storybook), it’s later than normal, and most often the chick will not survive. The chick in Kutter’s book was the size of a fuzzy black tennis ball, visible only by looking through binoculars from the shore.
Chick loons are fed almost constantly by their parents to get big enough and strong enough to join the migration route before harsh winter sets in. The chick mentioned by the Kutters was not only very little, he was very lucky.
A loon generally lays only two eggs, sometimes in on-shore nests (some of them man-made). Loons are very territorial and stake out their own places on a given lake. But toward mid-summer, they are known to gather all together in the middle of the lake and “party,” Kutter noted. It’s as if the intensive feeding and caring for their chicks, once done, is cause to celebrate and let their territorial guard down, Kutter explained.
This summer, there have been 14 baby chicks counted by the loon-lovers of Big Birch Lake. Last year, a nasty storm on the lake in June wiped out all the chicks, Kutter noted.
Kutter played a recording of the many kinds of calls loons are famous for. Some sound similar to a tap-tap woodpecker sound, others sound like a quick chittering racket, some are “hoots,” some sound like yodeling and giddy-laughing sounds, and still others are the lonesome mournful call so familiar to Minnesotans.
The crazy laughing sound is where the expression “crazy as a loon” originated, Kutter said.
Generally, Kutter added, most loon calls mean “Where are you? Come here.”
Loons are said to mate for life, but often what happens is male intruders will barge into another male’s territory and battle for dominance, sometimes forcing the defending male to retreat, and such rejected males often later die. Kutter had once seen two male loons fight for more than four hours, but the intruder was driven off.
Loons are not adept on land. They tend to waddle and fall over quickly. They also need a long stretch of water, like an airport runway, to launch themselves into flight.
Other fun facts about loons mentioned by Kutter:
Loons have summer habitats from Alaska all the way over to New England. There are an estimated 14,000 loons in Minnesota, many more if you count the people.
Loons thrive on eating smaller fish, though they will also eat insects and crustaceans. They can dive up to 150-feet deep and stay underwater for up to 90 seconds. Their eyes have a double lid to protect them underwater. Loons are seen only on nice and clear lakes because they need clear, clean water to see their prey at deep depths.
When migrating, loons first go to Lake Michigan where they stop to feed on a certain kind of lake food. Then they fly, often on air currents, non-stop to the Gulf of Mexico Florida area. They can fly and glide at up to 110 mph, 150 mph if there is a tail wind. Youngest loons stay in the Gulf of Mexico area for up to three years so they can grow old enough to mate.
Loons have been known to live for up to 20 – and in some rare cases – up to 30 years old.
Kutter said he was pleased with the reception of his book by so many loyal readers. The Littlest Loon can be purchased via amazon.com, at “On a Lark” in St. Joseph and at “By Hand” in Waite Park.
photo by Dennis Dalman
Author Bob Kutter shared his fun facts about loons and his storybook “The Littlest Loon” at a meeting of the Sartell Senior Connection recently. Kutter was accompanied by his wife, Nancy (right) and the book’s illustrator Debra Johnson. All are retired educators from the Grey Eagle area.
photo courtesy DNR
A loon floats along with her chick nestled safely on her back.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.