“Wage Lessons”? A title might as well be: “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Loons, But Were Afraid To Ask.” (And yes, some of those “unusual encounters” can be shocking.) It would be pretty hard to find a question about Gavia Immer, otherwise known as Britain’s Great Northern Diver, who called “Loon Lessons” not trying to answer .
James D. Paruk has been studying Loons since he volunteered to help a researcher friend capture (and release) them over 30 years ago in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That “school friend” was Dave Evers, whose intensive research on loons led him to found the Biodiversity Research Institute, now located in Portland. (I’ve reviewed several of Evers’s books on these pages.) Paruk is now a professor of biology at St. Joseph’s College and also adjunct principal investigator at BRI. His professorial background explains both the strongest and weakest parts of the book.
At the outset, the book takes a closer look at the evolution of the common loon from its earliest ancestors. The following chapters are devoted to the physiological adaptation of the species to (and through) its natural environment, how it swims and dives, how it courts, how it raises its chicks. As the author points out, most people get their introduction to (and bewitched by) the madman through its famous vocalizations: The “Wailing, Yodels, and Tremolos” chapter gets to the heart—or syrinx (voice box)—of the matter. Other fascinating topics include behaviour, migration, threats and conservation efforts.
“Loon Lessons” reflects the author’s twin passions, research and education. Each chapter begins with a field report addressing the topic that will be explored in greater depth in the following pages. Paruk has “captured and treated” more than 200 loons and spent more than 5,000 hours studying their behavior (many of those hours under difficult conditions given the bird’s penchant for cold, damp and mosquito-infested haunts). In these stories he treats the reader to interesting events, bird dramas (sometimes surprisingly violent), small personal revelations and memories.
And then there is the story of the eternal triangle. Paruk and Evers see how a male diver returns to his birth lake with a new female. (They know this because she doesn’t have colored bands on her leg.) The couple is busy setting up their nest when the former partner arrives at the lake. (They know this because she has colored bands on her leg.) She does everything she can to break up the couple and reconnect with her old buddy.
After these stories come the scientific explanations and theories. “At my core, I am a teacher and a science educator,” Paruk writes, looking at his subject through the lenses of natural selection and behavioral ecology. In a few deft sentences, he calls natural selection “the thrifty harvester of extravagance” and behavior patterns “an optimization agent in disguise”.
These parts of the book are full of fascinating – and certainly for me – new scientific information. Why Do Loons Have White Bellies, Red Eyes, Narrow Hips? And why are loons so different from cormorants?
But for the average reader, writing can be difficult. While his field notes are concise and often action-oriented, Paruk’s pedagogical style is often clumsy and confusing. The inherent chicken-and-egg element in natural selection, for example, makes clarity in its discussion all the more important. Too often I found the thread of his argument cumbersome and difficult to follow. Contextual information is sometimes exaggerated, with background assumptions repeated almost to the point of tautology.
I suspect these shortcomings are due to Paruk’s attempts to adapt the lecture notes to the book format. I can imagine him giving a beautiful animated lecture to his students, running to the blackboard to underline this or that point. The lessons in “Wage Lessen” certainly read like that. And as such they are great. However, by turning it into a book, a stronger editor could have helped streamline the text and make it more understandable. It may also have caught occasional missteps, such as writing descendant instead of ancestor, or razorback instead of auks.
However, this criticism should not deter anyone interested in loons. “Wage Lessons” is an elegantly produced book and a must-have for wage enthusiasts. Ultimately, Paruk is quite optimistic about the future of the common diver. In addition to adding to our knowledge of these ancient birds, “Loon Lessons” explains why. “People love their loons,” he concludes, “and will do anything to make sure they grace our lakes every year.”
Thomas Urquhart is the former Executive Director of Maine Audubon and the author of the recently published “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”