James Paruk of Gorham, a biology professor at Saint Joseph’s College, relaxes at Sebago Lake, taking time off from promoting his new book across the country and prepping lessons for the upcoming semester. Kristen McNerney / Lakes Region Weekly

Jim Paruk, a Gorham resident and biology professor at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, takes a deep dive into a wild habitat with his 2021 book release, “Loon Lessons: Uncommon Encounters with the Great Northern Diver.”

As a researcher of the common loon for three decades and lead author of an account of the species for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World project, Paruk is a global expert.

In his latest endeavor, he has put together both a scientific and personal account of what he refers to as the “sacred” bird.

“To even touch them seems like you’re crossing some kind of barrier,” he said, reminiscing about his first time holding a loon.

James Paruk said holding a loon on his lap was “one of those moments in life you remember.” Contributed / James Paruk

About 10 years into his research, he decided he wanted to put all of his knowledge in one place.

“Loon Lessons,” published by the University of Minnesota Press, answers questions that have come to Paruk over time while in the field and is the most comprehensive update on the subject since ornithologist Judy McIntyre’s 1988 book “The Common Loon: Spirit of Northern Lakes,” he said.

One question Paruk attempts to answer refers to the loon’s aggressive nature.

“Loons are, on the surface, very adoring,” he said. “But there’s an aspect I call the ‘dark side of the loon.’ It’s because they can attack each other, and sometimes kill each other.”

Paruk said he was shocked to find that both females and males both suffer puncture wounds inflicted by fellow loons.

“Typically, we think of males being very territorial, but females might be extremely territorial as well,” he said.

He also informs readers about the male loon’s “yodel,” or call. Each male’s yodel is unique.

“They can identify all their neighbors, and neighbors can identify each other,” he said.

Removing a male loon from a lake and replacing it with a recording of a different loon forces the remaining males to act more aggressively, he said.

The iconic Maine bird can be found on most lakes during warmer months and near the ocean during wintertime. To spot one, look for its robust size, prominent long bill, black body with white checkered blotches on its back, and a “very bright red eye.”

The Common Loon is one of five species of loons, Paruk said, with the other four native to the tundra. Ninety-four percent of all Common Loons live in Canada, he said, with 2% in Alaska and the rest in the continental U.S. Despite such a small number living in Maine, Maine Audubon Society counted 2,974 adults and 414 chicks in the southern half of the state in 2020.

Although facts about the bird permeate the pages of “Loon Lessons,” Paruk also sprinkles in anecdotes about his own adventures.

“I’ve been in some remote places in Saskatchewan and Alaska,” he said, referencing personal stories in each chapter. “I’ve been 6 to 10 miles out in the open ocean catching loons at 2 in the morning. I’ve been so cold because you’re trying to catch them in the winter.”

Although he’s been studying loons for 28 years, Paruk said becoming an expert wasn’t his end-all goal, and his motivation to study the creature was about something much more meaningful.

“For me, it was just kind of a lifelong passion for learning,” he said.

Fellow “loonatics,” as fans of the bird are called, offered their praise of the book when interviewed.

“As a teacher, it’s no surprise that he’s translated such knowledge into a book on common loons that offers a highly readable viewpoint on their natural history,” said David Evers, chief scientist and founder of Portland’s Biodiversity Research Institute.

“While this wonderful book serves as one of the most recent and insightful references regarding our understanding of the behavior and life history of this iconic species, it also reflects Dr. Paruk’s engaging personality, interminable curiosity, and unassuming yet infectiously motivating spirit,” commented Jay Mager, a biology professor at Ohio Northern University.

Paruk said his book can be found in local book stores such as Sherman’s in Greater Portland and the Bookworm in Gorham as well as online.

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