Vocal repertoire, harmonic structure, and behavioural context in Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata)


  • Sheila D. Douglas
  • Thomas E. Reimchen Department of Biology, University of Victoria




Avian song, duetting, Drizzle Lake Ecological Reserve, Gavia stellata, Gaviidae, Haida Gwaii, harmonic structure, sexual dimorphism, sonogram, vocalizations


Among the five loon species (Gaviidae), Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata) is the oldest lineage and is the most divergent in morphology and vocalizations. We substantially expand earlier description of calls for a nesting pair and non-breeding birds on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada. Three major calls used by the nesting pair (Quack, Wail, Plesiosaur) were all low frequency (700–3000 Hz) with multiple harmonics, calls that were also used by non-breeding birds without territories that overnight on freshwater lakes. Call duetting in the Wail and Plesiosaur, as well as sexually dimorphic frequencies and structure within the duets, typically occur in territorial display or pair interactions. The nesting pair used several calls audible only at short distances (Coo, Extended Coo, Staccato, Soft Raack) that were low frequency (200–1200 Hz), graded in behavioural intensity and that resulted in chick responses, including feeding or return to nest. A high amplitude Loud Raack was used by the female and is associated with flight incentives for pre-fledged chicks. Vocalizations of chicks, usually feeding solicitations to the adults, develop from simple chirps in the first week following hatch to more complex calls resembling the Wail and the Plesiosaur calls just prior to fledging. Although the majority of our acoustical descriptions are limited to a single nesting pair where sexes could be differentiated, these represent the first quantification of sound frequency, harmonic structure, and duration, most often associated with context-specific responses, and are suggestive of syntactical content to the vocal repertoire of this basal taxon.