My Canada, 52/150: Loony for loons

How to get rich, quick: Capture the stress-reducing effect of a loon’s call in a potion.

The Common Loon – the official animal of the Canadian province of Ontario, and featured on our $1 coin – is a diving waterfowl found in every province and territory in Canada, living in forested lakes and rivers. It’s heavy-bellied with legs far back, making it a superb swimmer that rides lower in the water than a duck, but those far-back legs mean a loon has difficulty walking on land, so nests near the shore. These birds commonly feed at night, using those signature red eyes in a technique dubbed as “peering” by a University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute publication on Migratory Birds of the Great Lakes: Peering means “swimming along with bill and eyes immersed underwater, watching for fish. Crucial to this type of foraging is the loon’s superb vision, which filters out yellow, red and orange light.”

And because they’re out hunting at night, loons are vocal at night, particularly in the early evening. Canadians in camps, cottages, lodges, and other accommodations near lakes and rivers count on that soothing, flute-like sound to echo across the water to the shore. It’s the auditory signal to exhale, breathe more slowly, and turn your mind away from busy life. Feel the warmth of the campfire. See Orion’s constellation in the sky. Hear the loons.

The sound of loons is so engrained in happy, blissed-out memories for Canadians from coast to coast that it was among the first four creatures to be documented in Hinterland Who’s Who, a series “commissioned in 1962 by the Canadian Wildlife Service, as a way to generate interest in Canada’s wildlife through a series of short, one-minute vignettes, broadcast during [TV] commercial breaks.”  So says the Wikipedia entry on Hinterland’s Who’s Who which, as Wikipedia entries go, is a dandy – thorough and informative. The series, produced for the CWS by the National Film Board, began airing on Canadian television in 1963. And thanks to the wonders of YouTube, yep, here it is:

Hinterland Who’s Who original narrator John Livingston – whose soothing voice became a signature of these vignettes – says the loon’s calls “have come to symbolize Canada’s wilderness because of their lonely, haunting quality.”

I remember these spots almost as well as I remember a loon call: in an only-in-Canada development, they became ripe for comedic parody. John Candy created a spoof “Hinterland” on one episode of SCTV; Bob Robertson and Linda Cullen, a husband-and-wife comedy duo, perfected the Hinterland satire with Political Hinterland Who’s Who, a feature of their CBC radio show Double Exposure that ran from 1986 to 1997. I found one transcript of their “who’s who” on the “Great Blue Harris” – aka then-Ontario Premier Mike Harris, a conservative from North Bay, ON:

“On the depression north of Lake Ontario, the Great Blue Harris, or in Latin, Attila Foraqueensparkicus, has stirred up a hornets’ nest with its fellow creatures living off a diet of bologna and tuna. The Great Blue Harris, not concerned with the welfare of others, has stirred the left wing back into full flight.”

A side note on Hinterland Who’s Who, thanks again to those indefatigable Wikipedia editors: “In 2003 the Canadian Wildlife Federation, in co-operation with the Government of Canada, began producing new episodes of Hinterland Who’s Who.” And – no surprise – the loon, yet again, swam to the top on the line.

Main photo: Kelley Teahen

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