Parents As Teachers: Learning By Instinct And Experience

Mother loon in a teachable moment.

The loon parent looks serene in my photo, but she’s teaching her fledgling a lesson in survival. What you don’t see is her juvenile loon hiding under the pine trees along the shore as a big, hungry eagle looks on. I’m compelled to write about how this mother loon used a teachable moment to save her baby. It taught me that the sentient nature of an animal, regardless of the species, will fight for her child and teach them how to survive in the big, wild world.

Late summer swimming and fishing are excellent in the lakes of Maine. On a recent morning I was finishing a half hour swim in the invigorating 63º water and 63º air. An immature loon had been swimming very close to me as he was fishing and diving for breakfast. A frequent swimmer in this spot, the local loons seem to know who the friendly humans are, which has given me opportunities to swim within a few yards of these magnificent creatures. Loons are large aquatic birds that migrate to open water in the winter. They are excellent swimmers and strong, but awkward, flyers that need about 30 yards of open water to take off. Loons are nurturing parents who transport chicks on their backs as they learn to swim and feed. That is why what happened next was remarkable to see.

I wasn’t aware of the mother loon or the eagle while in the lake on this cloudless blue morning. Often, when open-water swimming, I look at the sky (cloudstroke) or listen to the birds along the shore (birdsongstroke). This is my creative wellness. I imagined the juvenile loon was having a wellness moment, happily pursuing perch and showing off his diving skills. I was about 100 yards from shore and started to swim to camp when the adult loon hydroplaned by me within less than 10 feet. The sheer force of this mother bird moving toward her offspring was like a motorboat. I could feel the loon’s big webby feet propelling as she spread her wings to create lift and increase her size in defense of the eagle that was close to snatching her fledgeling in it’s mighty talons. Her lighting speed and determination saved the day as she spooned up the little guy in her wake, pushing him toward the shore under the cover of low pine boughs.

The mother’s instinct was, even with my human girth and swimming abilities, I wasn’t a danger to her baby. The fledgling’s instinct was, move like mama, stay sheltered in place. My instinct was this is rare to witness and I should swim around the birds, not in between them. The mother, guarding her offspring, let out a prehistoric bellow. A common loon’s varied calls are unforgettably eerie, almost other-worldly. The loud tremolo of her call was a signal to the young bird to pay attention and follow her example. It was also a warning to other loons that a predator was in the neighborhood. From the shoreline I looked closer at the little loon, whose plumage was still the fuzzy grey of babyhood. He was tucked into a shape that looked like one of the smooth rocks along the water’s edge, mimicking his mother. The instinct for life to creatively survive and thrive in an environment is amazing.

When the eagle departed, the loons swam away. Was the mother sharing her insights, letting the fledgling know that this is how to learn by experience? We learn by instinct and reasoning. We learn by example and experience. Learning is creative. Our parents are our first teachers. They give us tools and confidence to develop new ways of thinking, doing and being, and to explore the world around us. In September students return to school and educators teach in the classroom. Parents teach by reasoning and example throughout our lifetime. Like looking for traffic before crossing the street, a loving parent can show us how to navigate the waters in the big pond of life. Ultimately, we spread our wings and take flight, knowing it is our personal instincts and experiences that teach us everyday.