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Preening & Bathing

You might think a loon is in distress when you see it preening or bathing, but these are actually important daily maintenance behaviors. Here are some key points to help recognize these behaviors:


For loons, daily preening is a necessary maintenance behavior to keep their feathers aligned, waterproofed and in good condition. Individual feathers are like shingles on a roof; their interlocking structure creates a barrier so that water cannot penetrate their skin. Loons and other birds secrete oil from the uropygial gland (also called preen gland) at the base of the tail and work it through all of their feathers. This oil helps keep the feathers in place, like hairspray.

Photo courtesy of John Rockwood

Photo courtesy of Kittie Wilson

Video of loon preening courtesy of John Rockwood.

  • A loon will often roll onto its side or back and start pulling the breast and belly feathers through its bill.  One leg usually comes out of the water and the loon spins in circles while trying to reach these feathers.
  • Since loons cannot reach their head and neck with their bills, they rub their head against their back or shoulders after secreting some oil from the preen gland.
  • Loons will often flap their wings during and at the end of preening sessions.  During a wing flap, a loon rises high up on the surface of the water and with neck outstretched, bill held high and wings spread, it will flap several times while shaking its head and neck.
  • Tail wagging usually follows wing flaps.  The loon holds its tail above the water’s surface and shakes it from side to side, expelling excess water.
  • Preening sessions can sometimes last more than 30 minutes.


Bathing is another maintenance behavior that is observed on a regular basis. Loons bathe to help get rid of feather parasites and clean their feathers.

  • Bathing involves more vigorous splashing and submerging. A loon may completely roll over while thrashing in the water with partially opened wings.
  • One or both wings are often seen flailing in the air and then are slapped back down on the water's surface.
  • One or both legs may also be seen flailing in the air.
  • A loon may dive backwards, flashing its bright white belly.
  • It may intersperse splashing with dipping its bill and sometimes its head into the water to wash its face.
  • Loons will often flap their wings during and at the end of a bathing session as well.
  • Bathing sessions are often interspersed with periods of preening and may also last more than 30 minutes.

Photos courtesy of Kittie Wilson.

A preening or bathing loon is a busy loon. Please make sure that you watch the action with a good pair of binoculars from a safe distance, so that your presence does not distract the loon from this essential part of its daily routine.

Video of loon bathing courtesy of
Charles Walcott.

Loon bathing from Massabesic courtesy
of Alexis Rudko.