Enjoying the Birds of the Ottawa Valley
Birds and People - A Historical Sketch

Prior to Confederation, the few records of people's attitudes to birds in the Valley are those of hunting expeditions. The appreciation of birds was typified by the artist William Pope, who lived near Long Point. Pope's one surviving hunting journal, covering only 1834 to 1847, proudly lists 11,546 shot creatures, mostly birds. His favourites were robins, meadowlarks and snow buntings, but he killed just about every bird that came within shotgun range.

In 1864, Ontario became the first province to protect some non-game birds. The British North America Act, which founded Canada in 1867, did not consider birds worthy of mention. Under (British) common law, wild birds are the property of the Crown, even while on private land. So, their ownership defaulted to the provinces and territories. The oversight had to be corrected later.

red-eyed vireo in a garden
Ernest Seton Thompson, ca.1890 As early as Confederation, some in the Valley wanted to enjoy the company of birds. Dissatisfied by our native species' tendency to spurn village streets, and encouraged by the many "acclimatization societies" then active in the United States, several groups of Ottawans imported flocks of house sparrows around this time, probably from New England where they had been first introduced from Europe in 1851.

The professional study of birds in Canada started in association with prospecting, at the "Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada". In 1880, the Survey moved (mostly from Montreal) to Ottawa. On the completion of the move, in 1882, John Macoun, who had done contract work for the Survey for several years, was confirmed as Botanist, i.e. head of the Natural History section. He was Canada's first full-time professional in the field.

The first recorded amateur study of birds here, other than by hunters, also appears at this time. A report of the Ornithological and Oological Branch of The Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club (OFNC) for the season 1881-82 was "confined principally to work done in Oology, as that was the special study of the greater number of the members". (Oology is the collection of eggs.) The report also contained a first attempt at a list of birds - 169 species. Virtually all of them had to be shot in order to obtain acceptable identification.

Throughout the history of bird study, there has been a conflict between those who dissect birds and classify them as objects, and those who wish to study living things. However, birds often show inadequate detail at a distance for scientifically defensible identification. And, bird actions sometimes confuse identification. Collection is often the only method available to resolve these problems.

Anyway, this conflict was formally recorded for the Valley in 1889, when five observers submitted reports to The Ottawa Naturalist. Three, including John Macoun, submitted lists of shot birds. But, William Lees, with his partner N.F. Ballantyne, reported on 101 species records "made altogether without the aid of a gun, the birds being observed by means of field glasses".

Lees explained his method as observing a species time after time and comparing it with "one after another of the descriptions in the textbook, til one was found to correspond with it". In some cases, he commented, it was not until it had been seen on several different occasions that it was finally identified. Sometimes, he and Ballantyne gave mutual assistance, one holding the glass and the other the book. "Mr. Kingston, who also observes with a glass, stated that instead of taking a textbook to the field, he noted in a small book kept for the purpose the size and markings of each bird, following the same order in every case, and compared the descriptions with those in the books afterwards."

It is easy today to underestimate the temerity of this approach, with our modern optics and the "flash mark" system pioneered by Roger Tory Peterson (and based heavily upon shot specimens). In 1889, the descriptions in bird books were translated straight from the Latin type descriptions. Lees' textbook, McIlwraith's Birds of Ontario (1886 edition) describes song sparrow as "Below white, slightly shaded with brownish on the flanks and crissum, breast and sides with numerous dusky streaks, with brown edges, coalescing to form a pectoral blotch and maxillary stripes bounding the throat; ... ". Not a single illustration in the whole book, either.

Field glasses then were 2x power, or 4x with very limited field of view (about that of a modern 15x scope). As late as the 1930's, many birders picked up a fowling piece first, binoculars second.

As for John Macoun, "on the explanation being given, [he] expressed himself satisfied that, with proper care, there was no reason why these systems or either of them should not lead to accurate results. He also suggested that for amateur ornithologists they were much preferred to the system of shooting, so often followed to excess and without discrimination."

Thus encouraged, Lees continued the fray. A subsequent article, "What you see when you go out without a gun", included comments such as "what we most wished to study was the habits of the birds, and a dead bird has no habits in particular", and a reference to "double-barrelled field glasses"! The report of a lecture by him the next year concludes, "for some purposes at least, a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand."

Lees' message did not convert many birders. A.G. Kingston, an OFNC Council member for over thirty years, reflected the general tone of the times when he wrote in 1898, "It is a great disappointment to us ... to our knowledge not one boy or girl in the city is making a systematic collection of birds or eggs". And, "The visit of Mr. G. Muirhead to Rideau Hall will be remembered by all lovers of birds ... he had the good fortune to shoot two female specimens of the rare and beautiful evening grosbeak, never before recorded at Ottawa."

Birding in the upper Valley was first mentioned in 1889, in an article "The Birds of Renfrew County" by the Rev. C.J. Young. "The grown people who have spare time, don't trouble themselves at all about the birds ... I hear of birds being shot at all seasons for no earthly purpose whatever ... in the part of Ontario where I live [the birds] are yearly diminishing." This view, too, reflects the tone of the times. The birds that were decreasing were the raptors (he mentions breeding golden eagles) and migrating waterfowl, but for every lost bird of prey, there would have been thousands of smaller, then unappreciated, birds moving onto the land newly freed from the prison of the pines.

In 1890 came the first mention of a woman birder, Gertrude Harmer, whose initial list of 65 species led to her being a birding leader for some years.

A born organizer, the Rev. C.G.W. Eifrig, arrived in 1903. He became a leader of the birders almost the day he arrived and, upon departing from Ottawa six years later, left us the first real annotated checklist of species - 244 of them - for the Ottawa area. This coincided with the first major national work on birds, the Catalogue of Canadian Birds, by John Macoun and his son J.M. Macoun.

Eastern phoebe, H.C.Hennessey for Birds of Eastern Canada, 1919 The next significant event in Ottawa birding came in 1911, when Percy Taverner joined the Museums Branch of the Survey as its first Ornithologist. Between 1911 and his retirement in 1942, Taverner produced some 300 publications, including the 1919 Birds of Eastern Canada, a seminal work which had a major impact on ornithological thought. He single-handedly made Ottawa the major center for ornithological research in Canada, and one respected throughout the world.

Until recently, it was believed that birds "destroy" weed seeds, insects, and rodents. Much professional effort, and much specious logic, was devoted to "economic ornithology": putting dollar values on birds. In 1886, one study calculated that a mouse caused 2¢ loss to agriculture. Each buteo was found to eat a thousand mice per year. Thus a red- tailed hawk was "worth" $20, a substantial sum at a time when a chicken sold for 25¢. Taverner knew that these economic arguments were not biologically sound. Despite this, he felt constrained to provide an "economic status" section for most of the birds treated in his books. The end, bird conservation, justified the means.

Today, we realize that birds and their food have evolved together. In particular, seeds take just as much advantage of birds' droppings as birds do of seeds. But, at the turn of the century, many areas of North America offered bounties for birds. Pennsylvania, for example, paid an incredible 70¢ in 1885 (at least $55 in 1985 income terms!) for each raptor killed, regardless of species. Bounties for crows were offered throughout Canada until at least the 1950's, although they were not large. The economic arguments helped in the fight to repeal such misguided laws.

By 1916, it was obvious that many migratory birds would follow the passenger pigeon into extinction if every state and province continued to "harvest" them independently as they passed through. The Constitution of the United States and the British North America Act both prevented federal ownership of birds. But, international treaties were reserved to the "feds". So, Canada and the United States got their heads together and agreed upon the Migratory Birds Convention in 1916. There were loud protests from British Columbia and the Maritimes. However, Gordon Hewitt, the Canadian negotiator and a champion of conservation, was a nephew-in-law of Prime Minister Robert Borden. And so it was that the legal right to control human activities related to most birds that pass between the two countries was vested in the federal spheres.

The provincial protests resulted in several weaknesses in the Convention, which still exist. A province is allowed to kill any birds judged by it to be "injurious to agriculture", even endangered species. Only deliberate "taking" is restricted, not poisoning or habitat destruction. Raptors, still considered "vermin" by many, were left unprotected. As I write this, a trapper in the Valley has just killed both a bald eagle and a golden eagle within a single season. The provincial ministry has refused to take any action, and the federal agency cannot.

Nonetheless, no other continent in the world yet offers the protection to birds that North America enjoys, thanks to the Convention, and to a similar one signed by Mexico in 1937. Seldom can a law have changed attitudes so completely, so quickly. As Frank Chapman put it, in the 1932 edition of his Handbook of Birds, "the present edition of the Handbook is designed to meet the wants of a class of bird-students that was almost unknown when the first (1895) edition was written. Field-work in eastern North America then meant chiefly collecting birds; now it means chiefly observing them."

Hoyes Lloyd became Supervisor of Wild Life Protection (in the National Parks branch of the Department of the Interior) to enforce the Convention. He took an active part in local bird study, and hired field officers who did the same. Among many other activities, Lloyd started the Ottawa Christmas bird count in 1919 and participated in all but one until 1959.

An Arnprior Christmas count was carried out by Charles Macnamara and Liguori Gormley from 1913 to 1939. Edna Ross started a count in Pakenham in 1925, and compiled it until 1972. (Today, Arnprior and Pakenham run a joint count.) In 1926, winter coverage of the Pakenham area was limited to "12 miles on foot, 6 by horse and cutter". At this time, most winter roads were impassable for cars. This changed when rural school busing became widespread. Roads had then to be kept open all around the area.

Starlings arrived in the Valley in 1922 (they were introduced to New York in 1890). By 1925, they were established all-year residents. Fed during the winter by the immense farms of rice introduced to the American Southeast, their current population reflects the most basic characteristic of life - the energy to expand into every exploitable niche. To wild creatures, "natural" is what is.

Between the wars, Ottawa was a town of fewer than 100,000. Britannia was cottage country, and a visit to Rockcliffe was called an "excursion". Birding took place in isolated groups. A south Ottawa group was centered around Taverner, and included Harrison Lewis and Oliver Hewitt (both with Wildlife). Another group grew around Lloyd in Rockcliffe; it included Rowley Frith, an amateur skilled enough to work professionally after his retirement, and Father F. Banim, who hosted many OFNC monthly meetings at St. Patrick's College, where he taught biology. Birding around Pakenham seems to have been limited to the Ross family, walking around their farm and Pakenham Mountain, and canoeing on the Mississippi.

A typical Ottawa walk would start at Bronson and The Driveway, go along the Dow's Lake dam to see the tops of the trees in Dow's Swamp, check out the dump on the way to Hartwell's Locks (where the Carleton University residences are now), scurry (illegally) across White's railway bridge, move through the woods full of squatter's shacks where Vincent Massey Park now is, then loop past Hog's Back to home. It took about three hours, and there wasn't a scrap of manicured lawn in sight the whole way.

The natural sciences in the Valley have until recently been dominated by the world-renowned experts recruited by the federal government. For example, almost half the Ottawa Christmas Bird Count participants between 1919 and 1939 were those professionally employed in biology, and their families. Amateurs who participated for many years were Ralph DeLury, the Dominion Astronomer, his brother Daniel, Harold Lanceley, who organized the 6 a.m. spring bird walks during the period, and Bert Fauvel of the RCMP, who was treasurer of the OFNC for some years.

Until the 1950's, few Valley youngsters were interested in birds, and a great deal of the adult interest was social, not in natural science for its own sake. The half-dozen kids who became interested prior to the 1950's all seem to have been inspired by a single teacher, Miss Melbourne at Hopewell Avenue Public School.

Following a period under Austin Rand (1942-47), Earl Godfrey arrived here to direct Museum bird studies, not just "from coast to coast", but from the arctic islands to the US border. His Birds of Canada reflects a lifetime spent with museum skins and breeding record cards. Godfrey, and Doug Savile, a botanist who was studying bird flight at the time, were among those who led walks twice a week during spring throughout the two decades after the second war.

In 1947, the Dominion Wildlife Service was made a distinct agency, headed by Harrison Lewis. Renamed the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) in 1950, it has been shuffled around by bureaucrats ever since. Some hunters want to shoot every duck in sight. So, for a different reason, do many grain farmers. Finance departments tax as "speculative" wetlands that birds especially value. Agriculture departments give grants to anyone who "does something" to get birds off. (Especially under drainage acts.) Pesticide companies work endlessly to increase their sales, an aim usually in direct conflict with the welfare of birds. Everyone but the birds takes it out on the CWS!

Until 1971, the CWS was part of resource-oriented departments. Despite this, it still produced many top-notch studies focused on specific migratory and game species. CWS studies on DDT and warblers were among the first to document the dangerous continent-wide effects of chemical toxins and pesticides. Now part of the Environment department, CWS studies remain warnings that we ignore at our peril.

In 1948, grey partridges appeared in Ottawa. (A Pennsylvania firm did a brisk business importing them from Hungary for hunting clubs around 1900.) Ring-necked pheasants, which were first released here in 1932, are still being released at several locations in the Valley.

Spring was the social center of the naturalists' year after World War II. The scientists who led them were out of Ottawa doing field work by late May, and continued field work until freezeup. A serious closely-knit group of 15 to 20 birders came out for 6 a.m. walks around the Arboretum, and 30 to 40 came for Saturday afternoon trips farther afield. Even until the late 1950's, Britannia Village, Crystal Beach and Fairy Lake were in the country.

The life and soul of Ottawa birding after the war was businessman Fred Bourguignon. He was a gregarious and immensely likeable person, who shared his knowledge of birds with evident pleasure. But, he also was possessed by the collector's mania. Put simply, he wanted to have in his basement a specimen of every species of bird that had ever appeared in Ottawa. (He collected and traded specimens of other North American birds too.) His close friendship with the federal official responsible for migratory birds ensured him an unrestricted collecting permit. Many are the stories that he told of his collecting exploits, such as politely asking a group of bikini-clad bathers to step aside while he shot a piping plover along the Ottawa River.

Finally, however, the young birders, anti-shotguns all, felt confident enough to challenge their elders over the issue. When Bourguignon collected a summer tanager in May 1967, before some local birders could see it alive, there came an explosion that split the Ottawa birding community in two. (This state has since, regrettably, become endemic - only now it's in many more than two pieces.).

It is true that Bourguignon probably killed fewer birds in his lifetime than a typical duck hunter does. (There were nine thousand of them in the Valley then.) He, of course, viewed every specimen as a "scientific verity" lasting "a thousand years", as does every collector who needs to justify to themselves the killing of a bird as rare as a piping plover. (In fact, his trophies ended up in the storage rooms of the National Museum of Nature, who consider them an embarassement.) Today, when 30% of adult Canadians go on outings specifically to watch birds, and 20% describe themselves to Statistics Canada as "studying birds", the collector's mania can no longer be accepted. There would be no birds left to study if such numbers made collections. Besides, birds can now be much better learned from books than from private specimens.

Some naturalists attempt to drive a wedge between birders and real science over the issue of collecting. Today, it is more necessary than ever before to redirect this sentiment. There are hundreds of spray trucks dousing Valley roadsides, parks, and domestic lawns. They can kill more birds in a day than all scientific collecting across Canada has in a century. And, even their carnage pales beside the demands of the forest industry, whose pesticides would give whole provinces an ecological equivalent of AIDS, a deficiency of the ability of forest life to preserve itself. Such interests as these, rather than scientists whose studies would enable us to foresee and forestall extinction, should surely be the targets of those who truly love life.

By the mid-1960's, a new breed of birder was appearing. Courtesy of the affluent society, it was now possible for a young person interested in birds to eschew career aspects of ornithology, and instead to spend all one's waking hours thinking only of how to find and identify birds in the field. Bruce MacTavish is generally conceded to have been the first such in Ottawa. He was soon joined by a group that became known as "the bike gang" (pedal bicycles, that is), after their usual mode of transport. They developed such skills at field identification that the professionals no longer felt needed as instructors. In fact, as one "pro" put it, "they make me feel intimidated" with their competitive zeal.

A typical story from this period is that of three older birders. They were sitting on the slopes of the Dunrobin ridge one gorgeous day, watching for hawks and soaking up nature. A beat-up van that the "young turks" had succeeded in wangling for the day roared up. As peace and quiet vanished in a cacophony of bird names, a speck rose over the hill. "Sharpie." "No, Cooper's, look at the tail." "No way. Sharp-shinned. Look at the head." ... until the bird was almost overhead. At that point, one of the elders broke their silence. "Have you thought of marsh hawk?" A dead silence followed, broken finally by the roar of the van as the gang departed from the scene of their embarrassment for their next stop.

The affluent society also produced cars for all, and roads to go with them. The combined result of the increased hours and kilometers is that the checklist for the OFNC Region rose from 255 species in 1944 (Hoyes Lloyd) to 280 in 1969 (Ron Pittaway), and to no less than 321 by 1979 (Bruce Barrett et al.).

Often, a life form new to a habitat runs rampant until nature evolves the controls necessary to enfold it into itself. Ideas can behave the same way. Economic controls removed, some turned birding into a sub-culture with its own arcane rituals. First to appear came expressions of dominance. Lists became status symbols, an end in themselves, abstracted from the natural world. One lister recalls his realization that he was irrevocably hooked: "Here I was, watching a few wild turkeys walking across the ice at Cornwall. It made my life list, my Canada list, my Ontario list, my USA list, my day list, and my year list. It was six times the fun!"

A solitary stalker can see more birds than one who enjoys the company of others. As a result, the social aspects of bird watching have atrophied in groups dominated by listing birders. They get together only at the site of a "hot" bird, drawn like crows to a hidden owl. Each new arrival whips up binoculars, goes over the field marks, and mutters something about a suitably obscure mark. Convinced, he joins the group. They then stand around, talking of past birds, rarely looking back at the one that brought them there.

Old-timers perceive a decline in literacy, and an ignorance of natural philosophy, compared with the days when professional biologists were the acknowledged leaders. However, it must be admitted that the many stunning nature videos provided by now- ubiquitous television sets bring professional knowledge of nature to a wider audience than ever before.

In recent years, some projects have been devised that draw successfully upon amateur birding motivation and skills to produce significant ornithological results. In particular, the provincial Breeding Bird Atlases have mobilized armies of amateurs to collect data on a scale well beyond the budgets of professional institutions.

To enjoy the birds and one's fellows, and to contribute to knowledge at the same time, is the best of worlds. If this is what the future holds, we will be truly enjoying the birds of the Ottawa Valley for many years to come.

main page
next page