Common Loons Are Pop Music Icons

8:31 minutes

A loon spreading its wings in water, with photoshopped disco balls and club lights above it.
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For decades now, one music star has managed to show up on tracks spanning multiple genres and appear alongside many famous artists—while also remaining bafflingly under-recognized. Any guesses?

Of course, we’re talking about none other than the common loon—a waterbird with striking red eyes and black-and-white checkerboard plumage. This bird’s calls have been used in songs by artists like Michael Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Doja Cat, and Lana Del Rey. They’ve also been used as a sound effect in Hollywood blockbusters like “Harry Potter” and the TV show “Game of Thrones.”

So how did this bird’s call become a regular in everything from hip hop and EDM to pop music? A story in Audubon Magazine dove into this, and guest host Arielle Duhaime-Ross talks with author Maddie Burakoff, an associate editor at Audubon.

Further Reading

  • Listen to the first few seconds of Doja Cat’s “Get Into It Yuh,” to hear the call of a common loon.
  • Check out Audubon’s playlist of even more music with loon calls in it below!

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Segment Guests

Maddie Burakoff

Maddie Burakoff is an associate editor at Audubon Magazine based in Brooklyn, New York.

Segment Transcript

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: For decades now, one music star has managed to show up on tracks spanning multiple genres and has appeared alongside many famous artists while also remaining bafflingly underrated and under-recognized. Any guesses as to who I’m talking about? Here’s a hint.

[MICHAEL JACKSON, “THRILLER”] They’re out to get you

There’s demons closing in on every side

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I’m talking about the common loon, a water bird with striking red eyes and a black and white checkerboard body. This bird’s calls has been used in songs by artists like Michael Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, and Lana Del Rey. So how did this birds call become a regular in everything from hip hop and EDM to pop music?

A story in Audubon Magazine dove into this, and the author Maddie Burakoff, an associate editor at Audubon based in New York city, joins me now. Maddie, welcome to Science Friday.

MADDIE BURAKOFF: Hi, thanks for having me.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Thank you so much for being here. So take me back to the beginning. How did pudding loon calls in a musical track start?

MADDIE BURAKOFF: Yeah, it goes back decades, back to when some of these early synthesizer keyboards started to change the way people made music. People could, in theory, go out and record samples of sounds and instruments, and play them back, and be able to repeat them in music.

But a lot of these also included preset sample sounds for people who didn’t want to go out and do their own legwork. One of these sounds was a loon tremolo, which is the call that sounds a little bit like a maniacal laugh. Back in 1984, when this call was included in one of the most successful sampler keyboards, the sound started kind of taking off and getting picked up more and more by people who were using this keyboard to make dance hits and house tracks. And so people just kind of started hearing the sound on the dance floor, at the club. And more and more groups and musicians started putting it in their own tracks.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: And I’m sure our listeners would love to hear what you’re talking about. So here’s one of those examples that you just mentioned. It’s from the late ’80s. It’s called “Pacific State” by 808 State.


So I’m hoping everybody caught that. There’s that like echo, that– I’m not going to try and do it here on air. Instead, we’re going to give you an idea of what the common loon sounds like on its own when it’s making this call.


Beautiful. Maddie, do we know what this call means?

MADDIE BURAKOFF: Yeah so I guess there’s a couple things that are interesting about the use of this call in the kinds of tracks we just heard. One is that the track you just played kind of has this tropical like beach dance vibe. But of course, loons are more famous for spending their summers in remote northern woods. And so they’re kind of misplaced in a way in these songs.

But another thing that’s interesting is that it’s thought to be an alarm call. So actually, when whoever recorded this sample was probably stressing out the loon in this moment.


MADDIE BURAKOFF: The more kind of laughs or repetitions it adds to the call, that signifies that it is more and more stressed out.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: OK, so you’re basically telling me that we’ve been using an alarm call from a bird that’s worried about something in its vicinity to get down.


ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: In your reporting, did you speak to some music producers about the use of this call and what it means to them? What did they tell you?

MADDIE BURAKOFF: Yeah, so I did get the chance to talk with the producer Y2K, who works a lot with Doja Cat and other rap and hip hop artists.


MADDIE BURAKOFF: So he actually uses a different loon call, which is called the wail. It’s kind of that haunting echoey call that a lot of people might mistake for a wolf, even.



MADDIE BURAKOFF: Yeah, so when I spoke with Y2K, he actually has had a big role in making this call popular today because he has kind of claimed it as his beat tag. He puts it in every single song that he works on as a producer.

So for him, he told me he doesn’t have any real-life connection to loons. He grew up in Arizona. He lives in California.

These are not places where you find loons in the wild. But he just thought it sounded great. He described it as a very tasteful sound, and he mixed in this wail sound into everything he does now.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: So here’s an example. This is “Get Into It (Yuh)” by Doja Cat, produced by Y2K.


(SINGING) Yeah, ay, hey ay, yeah

They say I just got a buck, ay

Get into it, yuh

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I just started grooving a little bit in my little home office over here. So we talked about the tremolo. What is this other call? What does it mean?

MADDIE BURAKOFF: Yes, so the wail is thought to be kind of a contact call for the loon, kind of within the family unit of loon. So, for example, if one loon is out foraging on the water at night and its mate is back at home at the nest with the chicks, one of them might call out this wail, kind of saying, where are you? And the other one will respond, here I am, so that they can kind touch base, and maybe find each other at night, and maybe move closer together if they’ve gotten a little lost.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I like that. What do bird biologists have to say about the use of the common loons’ Very regular musical appearances?

MADDIE BURAKOFF: For the most part, a lot of them love that this loons call that means so much to people who live in these areas or have childhood memories on these lakes, that these calls are showing up in pop music and can kind of reconnect us with the natural world, in some ways. Of course, there’s the question of, are these calls being misused?

They’re being placed in the wrong habitats in film and TV, too. A lot of times, their calls will show up in tropical environments. Or they’ve even shown up in outer space in some cases or representing different animals. But for the most part, a lot of the researchers I talked to said it’s all in good fun, and anything that can re-inspire our love of nature and of these birds is a positive for them.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I actually think this whole trend is incredibly delightful. So I want to ask you, Maddie, if you had to pick the next avian pop star, what bird call would you like to hear sampled?

MADDIE BURAKOFF: Oh my gosh. Well, actually, there are two other loon calls that people have not picked up as much as these balloons, wail and tremolos. So I would love to hear– there’s one called the yodel that is a little bit more complicated but also conveys a lot of interesting information to other loons. So after reporting this story, what I really wanted is for some producers to take up the challenge of using this other kind of loon call in their music as well and maybe kicking off that trend.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: The producer for this segment wants me to ask you if you can yodel for us. I’m blaming it squarely on her, but can you?

MADDIE BURAKOFF: [LAUGHS] I don’t know if I can do that–


MADDIE BURAKOFF: –justice, to be honest.


MADDIE BURAKOFF: It’s a very complicated call, yeah.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: How about we just play it right now?


My part, I think using some of the calls from the northern flicker would work really well. I could totally hear it.


Maddie, thank you so much for joining me. This was an absolute delight. Thanks for bringing some tunes to Science Friday.

MADDIE BURAKOFF: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Maddie Burakoff is an associate editor at Audubon Magazine in New York City.

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About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

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Arielle Duhaime-Ross is freelance science journalist, artist, podcast, and TV host based in Portland, OR.

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