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What’s it like to hold a loon in your hands?

“It’s a powerful, emotional, moving experience,” says a biologist who’s spent three decades studying these birds.

STANDISH, Maine — “To appreciate any organism, I am convinced we do not need years of training,” writes James Paruk. “All we need to do is watch our children marvel at a deer or a squirrel from a window. A sense of wonder and our innate curiosity can lay the foundation for developing and maintaining an appreciation for the natural world.”

A professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s College, Paruk has spent more than three decades building the deep foundation of knowledge that he shares in his book, “Loon Lessons: Uncommon Encounters with the Great Northern Diver.” He’s too modest to say it, but he is among the leading loon experts in the country.

His sense of wonder about these birds can be traced back to the first time he held one in his hands while banding it. “A loon or a wolf, it just seems like they’re sacred, mystical animals,” he says. “So when you break that barrier and hold one and feel how strong it is, and then they hoot and call out, it’s a very powerful, emotional, moving experience.”

The call of a loon is one of the most compelling sounds in nature, and when Paruk hears one he usually has a general idea of what the bird is communicating. A yodel from a male, for instance, likely means “I’m here and I’m occupying this territory.”

Although some people who’ve spent a lot of time around loons can do stunningly good impressions of their calls, Paruk is not one of them. He’s judged loon-calling contests but doesn’t enter them. “I’m always amazed at what people can perform,” he says admiringly of those competitions. “It’s awesome.”

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