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10 Black and White Facts About Common Loons

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There are five species of loon, all living above the equator. There's the Arctic loon, a hardy tundra-dweller that roosts in northern Eurasia and North America; the Pacific loon, flocks of which descend upon California, Oregon, and Washington state every autumn; the red-throated loon, a small, narrow-headed bird that tends to point its beak upwards while swimming rather than straight ahead like its relatives; and the yellow-billed loon, the largest member of the loon family, which can weigh much as 13.2 pounds.

But when most people think of loons, it’s the common loon (Gavia immer) that comes to mind. Here are a few things you might not have known about the most iconic bird in this group.

1. LOONS ARE REALLY, REALLY GOOD DIVERS.

In pursuit of fish, a common loon can plunge over 200 feet below the water’s surface [PDF]. How is this possible? Part of the secret is in the bird's skeleton: Most avians have hollow, lightweight bones, but a loon’s are solid. This makes the diving birds a good deal less buoyant than, say, ducks. Once submerged, common loons can hold their breath for as long as eight minutes. Thanks to these talents, the birds are sometimes referred to as “great northern divers.”

2. A HAPPY ACCIDENT PUT THE COMMON LOON ONTO CANADIAN COINS.

After the bald eagle, the common loon is arguably the most celebrated bird in North America. In 1961, it was adopted as the state bird of Minnesota, and up in the Great White North, Canadian wallets are stuffed with “loonies”—dollar coins that have a portrait of the common loon on their reverse sides.

How the fowl came to grace this unit of currency is an interesting story. In 1986, the Royal Canadian mint was gearing up to release a new dollar coin. The design had already been selected: Queen Elizabeth’s face would be slapped onto the front and two voyagers in a canoe were to decorate the tails side. But when making a two-sided coin, each of the images that will be included must be engraved into a metallic stamp called a die. Unfortunately, the canoe dies went missing before Canada’s new one-dollar coins could be mass-produced. As a last-minute replacement, the mint decided to slap on a picture of a loon instead. Today, the coins are beloved in Canada. Many people—particularly hockey players—consider them to be lucky, but that’s a story for another time.

3. ON LAND, THEY’RE KIND OF KLUTZY.

Evolution is sometimes a matter of trade-offs. Over millions of years, loon legs were pushed towards the rear of their bodies. This helped the birds become more graceful swimmers, both underwater and at the surface—but because they more or less jut out behind the animal’s body, they're not that great for walking. On land, loons stumble around and push themselves along on their bellies—so they try to avoid walking whenever possible. In egg-laying season, mated pairs will look for a nesting site that’s close to the water’s edge. Islands are considered prime real estate because terrestrial predators are less likely to attack the clutch or chicks there. You know what they say: location, location, location.

4. TO TAKE FLIGHT, THEY NEED A LONG RUNWAY.

Despite being fairly heavyset birds, loons are strong fliers: They can reach speeds of about 70 miles per hour. But getting airborne is no easy task. Due to their size and leg anatomy, four of the five loon species physically cannot take off on dry land (the red-throated loon is the one exception). Instead, they must run over the surface of some lake, ocean, or waterway, flapping their wings all the while. Only after zipping along in this fashion for 100 feet to a quarter-mile (depending on the wind) can the heavier loons gain liftoff and travel skywards.

5. COMMON LOONS EMIT FOUR DISTINCTIVE CALLS.

Each sound is suited to a different situation: The wail, a long, haunting bellow that sounds like the howl of a wolf, is used to signal their whereabouts to faraway mates or rivals. An undulating, repetitive shriek called the yodel, which means “stay out of my territory,” is only made by males; no two specimens share the exact same yodel. The tremolo is a cackle that loons let loose when they either feel threatened or territorial. Finally, there’s the onomatopoeic “hoot,” which is used by members of the same family (mates, parents and chicks, etc.) who “hoot” every so often to keep in touch over short distances.

6. A LOON’S EYE COLOR CHANGES WITH THE SEASONS.

In the colder months, the birds’ eyes are a dull gray. But in the spring and summer, they turn a vibrant shade of crimson. Scientists don’t know why this happens, although it may have something to do with attracting mates or helping with underwater vision.

7. THEY INTENTIONALLY SWALLOW ROCKS.

Like all birds, loons lack teeth. This forces them to either swallow their meals whole or in sizable chunks. To ease the digestion process, loons will seek out and devour small pebbles. Once inside their stomachs, the tiny stones mash up newly-eaten food, which can then be processed more efficiently.

8. NO, THEY AREN’T DUCKS.  

At first glance, loons might bear a passing resemblance to these better-known birds, but looks can be deceiving. Molecular testing indicates that loons are more closely related to penguins and albatrosses than they are to ducks or geese. 

Out in the field, it’s easy to tell loons and ducks apart—even from a considerable distance away. Because of their heavy skeletons, loons ride low in the water while swimming. Conversely, you’ll see a larger percentage of a duck’s body floating above the surface.

9. BABIES LIKE TO GO FOR RIDES ON THEIR PARENTS’ BACKS.

Here’s another difference between loons and ducks. After mating, male ducks generally don’t stick around to help the females incubate eggs or raise chicks. However, a pair of loons will take turns sitting on their clutch. When these eggs hatch, mom and dad both tend to the babies. A newborn loon will spend about 65 percent of its first week riding around on a parent’s back. Apart from keeping them warm, hitching a ride helps keep the young safe from large fish and other aquatic predators like snapping turtles. Chicks will stay close to their guardians for two to three months. At the end of this period, most youngsters are capable of flying on their own and looking after themselves.   

10. MERCER, WISCONSIN BILLS ITSELF THE “LOON CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.”

This cozy town in the Badger State has a large concentration of loons, which frequent the surrounding lakes. In Mercer, the Great Northern Diver is treated like royalty. A 16-foot, 2000-pound talking loon statue named Claire d’Loon sits outside the chamber of commerce building. Moreover, residents throw a “Loon Festival” each summer. Here, you can pose next to locals who dress like the birds, get your face painted, and enjoy a bake sale. Then there’s the loon calling contest, wherein contestants of all ages show off their yodels, wails, and tremolos. By the way, the 2016 festival will commence on August 3. That should give you plenty of time to practice. Now get yodeling!

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Atlanta Shelters Give Pups a Temporary Home for the Holidays
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The holidays are looking a little brighter for adoptable dogs from two animal shelters in Atlanta, Georgia. As ABC News reports, a new program called Home for the Pawlidays is providing temporary homes to longer-term residents of Fulton County Animal Services and DeKalb County Animal Services for the week of Thanksgiving.

The initiative was organized by Atlanta's LifeLine Animal Project, a local group dedicated to providing healthcare and homes to shelter dogs. The dogs that were chosen for the project may be older, have special health needs, or other issues that make it more difficult to find them forever homes.

But from November 18 to 25, the dogs are getting to spend time away from the shelter and in the homes of loving foster families.

“We were thinking, everyone gets a break from work, and they should get a break from the shelter,” LifeLine’s public relations director Karen Hirsch told ABC News.

Some caretakers have already fallen in love with their four-legged house guests. Foster Heather Koth told ABC that she hadn’t been considering adoption, but after meeting Missy the shelter dog, she now plans to foster her until she has a permanent home or possibly adopt the dog herself.

And for the dogs that can’t be kept by their temporary owners, just a week of quality playtime and sleeping in a real bed can make a huge impact. You can check out photos of the pets who are benefiting from the program this week below.

[h/t ABC News]

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25 Things You Didn't Know About Turkeys
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Most of us probably associate turkey with a sumptuous Thanksgiving spread, but there’s a lot more to the big bird than how delicious it is alongside your grandma’s famous cranberry sauce. Here are a few bits of knowledge you can drop over the dinner table—when you’re not fighting with your family over white meat or dark meat, that is.

1. THE NORTH AMERICAN WILD TURKEY POPULATION WAS ALMOST WIPED OUT.

Wild turkey
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Wild turkeys once roamed the continent en masse, but by the early 20th century, the entire U.S. population had been whittled down to a mere 30,000 due to hunting and the destruction of their woodland habitats. In the 1940s, many of the remaining birds were relocated to parts of the U.S. with recovering woodlands so the turkeys could repopulate. Despite these efforts, by 1973, there were still just 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America. Today, that number is up to about 6 million.

2. TURKEY APPENDAGES ARE LIKE MOOD RINGS.

Wild turkey
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The dangly appendage that hangs from the turkey’s forehead to the beak is called a snood. The piece that hangs from the chin is the wattle. These fleshy flaps can change color according to the turkey’s physical and mental health—when a male turkey (called a tom, of course) is trying to attract a mate, the snood and wattle turn bright red. If the turkey is scared, the appendages take on a blue tint. And if the turkey is ailing, they become very pale.

3. TURKEYS CAN FLY.

Wild turkey in flight
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Well, domestic turkeys that are bred to be your Thanksgiving centerpiece can’t. They’re too heavy. But wild turkeys can, reportedly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Though they don’t go very far—usually less than 100 yards—wild turkeys are among the five largest flying birds in the world. They’re in good company: Others on the list include the swan and the albatross.

4. THEY CAN ALSO SWIM.

Wild turkey drinking water
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Turkeys don’t swim often, it seems, but they can, by tucking their wings in, spreading their tails, and kicking. In 1831, John James Audubon wrote, “I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water.”

5. TURKEY POOP CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

A handler picking up turkey poop at the White House Turkey Pardon in 2013.

The next time you happen across turkey poop—which happens all the time, we know—take a closer look at it. If the droppings are shaped like a “J,” they were left there by a male turkey. Spiral-shaped poo? The culprit is female.

The citizens of Pilot Rock, Oregon, probably don’t much care about the shape of the stuff, but more about the quantity of it. Earlier this year, Pilot Rock turned to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for help combating a flock of 50 to 70 wild turkeys that would periodically invade the town, destroy gardens, perch in trees, and poop on pickup trucks. The ODFW offered several solutions, but as far as we know the turkeys still rule the roost at Pilot Rock.

6. TURKEY PROBABLY WASN'T ON THE PILGRIMS' MENU.

A recreation of the Pilgrims' first settlement
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Thanks to historical records, we know for sure that the Wampanoag brought deer, and the English brought fowl—likely ducks and geese.

7. BEN FRANKLIN DIDN'T REALLY WANT THE TURKEY TO BE OUR NATIONAL BIRD.

A drawing of Ben Franklin.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Handout

You may have heard that at least one of our Founding Fathers lobbied hard to make the turkey our national symbol instead of the noble bald eagle. That’s not quite true, but in a letter to his daughter, he did expound on the character of each, which may be where the rumor got started:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

8. ANOTHER TURKEY FAN: ALEXANDER HAMILTON.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Yep, A. Ham liked turkey. In fact, he thought eating turkey was practically a god-given right, and once remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

9. TEDDY ROOSEVELT BELIEVED THE BIRDS WERE CUNNING PREY.

Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Africa.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

Ol’ TR may have been accustomed to hunting big game, but wild turkeys held a special place in his heart. He believed they were every bit as challenging to hunt as deer. In his 1893 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and the Wilderness Hunter, he wrote, “The wild turkey really deserves a place beside the deer; to kill a wary old gobbler with the small-bore rifle, by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”

10. WILD TURKEYS HAVE BETTER VISION THAN YOU DO.

Close up of wild turkey's head
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Their fantastic vision is probably one reason Teddy Roosevelt found turkeys such a challenge to hunt. They can detect motion from many yards away, have vision three times greater than 20/20, and have peripheral vision of about 270 degrees. Ours, comparatively, is only 180. And although turkeys can’t see in 3D, they can see UVA light, which helps them better identify predators, prey, mates, and food.

11. THE TOP TURKEY-PRODUCING STATE MAY SURPRISE YOU.

Domesticated turkeys on a farm
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You may know Minnesota for producing Prince, the Mall of America, and Target. But we also have the Land of 10,000 Lakes to thank for our Thanksgiving turkeys. According to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, approximately 46-48 million turkeys are produced in Minnesota every year. In fact, it’s where the turkey that receives a presidential pardon hails from every year. Speaking of which ...

12. THE PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON MAY DATE BACK TO ABE LINCOLN.

President Barack Obama pardons a turkey in 2011.
Getty / Mark Wilson / Staff

Officially, the tradition of the sitting president of the United States pardoning his Thanksgiving turkey dates back to John F. Kennedy, who decided to let his gift from the National Turkey Federation off the hook. But he wasn't the first president to let a turkey go free: When Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad befriended one of the birds intended for Christmas dinner in 1863, kind-hearted Abe granted it a stay of execution.

13. THE FIRST TV DINNER MEAL: THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS

Thanksgiving TV dinner
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In 1953, Swanson ended up with 10 train cars full of frozen turkeys—260 tons of them—when an overzealous buyer ordered too many turkeys for the holidays. Salesman Gerry Thomas solved the problem by ordering 5,000 aluminum trays and setting up an assembly line of workers to scoop dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes into the compartments. Slices of turkey rounded out the meal, which Swanson sold for 98 cents. The idea was a hit: The following year, 10 million turkey TV dinners were sold.

14. NATIONAL TURKEY LOVERS’ MONTH ISN’T WHEN YOU THINK.

Grilled meats on a silver tray
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Everyone eats turkey in November and December, so there’s not a lot of need for extra poultry promotion during those months. If you want to celebrate National Turkey Lovers’ Month, you’ll have to do it in June with some turkey brats and burgers on the grill.

15. THE TURKEY YOU’LL BE EATING IS PROBABLY ABOUT 18 WEEKS OLD.

Roasted turkey on a platter
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That’s how long it typically takes the birds to grow to maturity, which is when they’re usually slaughtered.

16. THERE WAS ALMOST A TURKEY SIDEKICK IN POCAHONTAS.

Loren Javier via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

At one point, Disney thought Pocahontas needed a little comic relief, so they hired John Candy to voice a wisecracking woodland fowl named Red Feather. Sadly, Candy passed away while the logistics were being worked out, so animators dropped the turkey entirely and opted for a clever raccoon named Meeko.

17. NOT ALL TURKEYS GOBBLE.

Close up shot of a wild turkey
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If you hear a turkey making the distinctive noise we all associate with them, then you’re hearing a male communicating with his lady friends up to a mile away. Females make a clicking sound instead of a gobble.

18. IF YOU DON’T EAT TURKEY AT THANKSGIVING, YOU’RE IN THE MINORITY.

A black and white photo of a family gathering around the table as the mother brings in a turkey.
Getty / Evans / Stringer

According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.

19. TURKEY CRAVINGS CAUSED A SPIKE IN KFC SALES IN JAPAN.

A large Kentucky Fried Chicken sign
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When KFC opened its first stores in Japan in the 1970s, the company was surprised to find that sales soared during the holidays. The phenomenon stymied executives since most of Japan celebrates neither Thanksgiving nor Christmas. It was later discovered that foreigners craving holiday turkey had decided that KFC’s chicken was the next best thing. After the company figured this out, they played up the association with their “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” campaign—“Kentucky for Christmas.” It worked on tourists and locals alike, and today, Christmas Eve is still the highest-selling day for KFC Japan.

20. THERE IS PROPER TURKEY TERMINOLOGY.

A flock of turkeys on a farm with one staring directly into the camera.
Getty / Cate Gillon / Staff

You probably know that a group of turkeys is a flock, but they can also properly be called a “rafter.” And should you want to call baby turkeys something a little more precise, you can call them “poults.”

21. THE MAYA USED TURKEYS AS SACRIFICIAL OFFERINGS.

A Maya tripod plate featuring a bird
Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Archaeologists have found vases dating from 250-800 CE that have turkeys depicted on them. According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art historian Andrea Stone, "turkeys were quintessential animals for feasting and for sacrificial offerings." The Maya even crafted tamales shaped like the birds.

22. DURING THE ‘70S, YOU COULD CALL JULIA CHILD FOR TURKEY ADVICE ON THANKSGIVING.

Julia Child in her kitchen in 1978
Lynn Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Even when she was at peak popularity, the famous chef refused to remove her phone number from public listings. According to friends, complete strangers would call Child on Thanksgiving to ask for advice on cooking the perfect turkey. Julia always answered the phone, and typically told callers whatever they needed to hear to get them to relax and enjoy the holiday. She even told some amateur cooks that turkey was best served cold anyway.

23. BIG BIRD IS A TURKEY.

Big Bird and Elmo at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Getty / Matthew Peyton / Stringer

Well, according to Sesame Street, he’s actually a canary—but his plumage makes him a turkey. The good people at American Plume & Fancy Feather provide Sesame Street with several thousand turkey feathers per costume to make sure Big Bird looks soft and fluffy.

24. THE BIRD IS NAMED AFTER THE COUNTRY.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
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But the whole thing was a mistake. Centuries ago, the English began to import a rather tasty bird, now known as a helmeted guinea fowl, from Madagascar. But they didn’t know it was from Africa. Because it was imported to Europe from merchants in Turkey, the English believed the birds were also Turkish.

Later, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they discovered Meleagris gallopavo—the wild turkey. It was delicious, so they started importing it back to Europe. Europeans thought it tasted like the “turkey” guinea fowl they had been enjoying, so they called it the same thing.

25. WHAT, EXACTLY, IS DARK MEAT?

Roasted turkey legs on a piece of butcher paper
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It’s just a different type of muscle than white meat. White meat is the result of glycogen, which doesn't need much oxygen from the blood because the muscles it fuels only require short bursts of energy. Dark meat, however, is found on wings, thighs, and drumsticks—muscles that are used for long periods of time and require more sustainable energy. It’s made dark by the proteins that convert fat into energy.

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