Richard Fyfe, the Canadian Wildlife Service biologist who helped save the peregrine falcon from extinction, died on June 17 after multiple battles with pneumonia. He was 85 and lived in Fort Saskatchewan.
By the 1960s, scientists were linking sharp declines of peregrine falcon populations in North America with the use of pesticides, particularly DDT. Due to bioaccumulation, the toxic substance built up in the falcons’ bodies over time, causing fertility problems and inhibiting enzymes needed to develop strong eggshells.
Fearing for the peregrine falcon’s future, Fyfe appealed to wildlife directors at the Federal-Provincial Wildlife Conference in 1970 for permission to start a captive-breeding program.
Since he had been studying the extent of the problem in Alberta and Saskatchewan and had successfully bred falcons in captivity in his backyard, he was well-positioned to co-ordinate the project.
Fyfe and a small team collected chicks from the few nesting pairs left in the wild and kept them on his property in Fort Saskatchewan until a facility at the Canadian Forces Base in Wainwright was ready in 1973.
The recovery program was controversial at the time. Some criticized keeping birds in captivity and others doubted the young would be able to survive after being released into the wild.
Fyfe’s team experimented on species that were less at risk and came up with creative ways — such as monitoring falcons’ behaviour via closed-circuit televisions — to find compatible pairs for mating. The team became the first to see their falcons return from the wild and become parents.
This success led to the reintroduction of peregrine falcons in places where they had all but disappeared.
By the time the Wainwright facility closed in 1996, his team had raised more than 1,500 falcons for release. Peregrines were taken off the endangered species list three years later.
Richard Fyfe holds a hybrid Prairie-gyrfalcon cross that he raised on his acreage. IAN SCOTT / THE EDMONTON JOURNAL
Fyfe was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 2000 for his role in the peregrine falcon’s recovery, but this honour came after his retirement and after he was falsely suspected of running an international falcon-smuggling ring.
The theory that Fyfe’s program could be a front for sending endangered falcons to the Middle East was based on the assumption that peregrines could not be raised in captivity. An extensive audit and investigations by his own department and law enforcement officials in Canada and the United States found no evidence to support the claim of smuggling.
“We could account for every egg,” said Geoff Holyroyd, who supervised Fyfe and took over the recovery program in 1988. Although Fyfe was vindicated and his director apologized for the strife he had endured, the accusations still stung and he sought early retirement.
‘A natural with birds’
Although his career with the Canadian Wildlife Service ended in the ‘80s, Fyfe kept busy by working as a consultant for power companies and preparing educational videos for schoolchildren about wildlife.
Fyfe was born in Saskatoon in 1932 but grew up in Kindersley, Sask. According to Lorraine Fyfe, his wife of 60 years, he loved birds as a boy but understood as a teenager that it was more socially acceptable to play hockey or go hunting. Carrying the gun his father gave him, he would venture into the prairie to shoot gophers but end up watching birds.
He picked up falconry and learned how to mimic bird sounds. With a gift for patience that later lent itself well to wildlife photography, he could spend hours sitting and waiting for birds to arrive.
“They would come to him, comfortable,” his wife said. “He was just a natural with birds.”
The couple met through her brother and were married in 1957.
After studying biology at the University of British Columbia, Fyfe worked as an elementary school teacher and principal in northern communities. He helped write science curriculum tied to the Arctic region before heading off to work for the Canadian Wildlife Service in Sackville, N.B. He and his wife later settled in Fort Saskatchewan and raised five children.
Fyfe’s eldest son, Ken, remembers skipping weeks of school in June so he and his brothers could float down the South Saskatchewan and Bow Rivers with their father. Spotting falcons, scrambling up the cliffs to band them and camping out at night formed some of their most cherished memories.
Although he was soft-spoken, Fyfe was also persuasive. During the eulogy for his mentor, the provincial wildlife biologist Gordon Court explained how Fyfe used his considerable charm to advocate for conservation, adding that he was a “master of the great, slow smile.”
Phil Trefry, who was the first employee at the captive-breeding facility in Wainwright, recalled Fyfe diffusing a heated scene at a conference decades ago. Several hundred scientists were arguing about who should run a captive-breeding program and Fyfe stood up and spoke for 10 minutes about pooling resources and knowledge to work together to save the species.
“Nobody interrupted him, everybody listened, and he basically said that peregrine falcons don’t have time to bicker and fight like this,” Trefry recalled.
“It changed the tone of the whole room,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”