Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 2: Vancouver 1913-1919

You get a feel for these creatures and you feel like these creatures

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

During Cowan’s early childhood years roaming around North Vancouver, he bonded with mountains and their inhabitants – including the loggers and their horses. He had a natural gift for befriending everyone, of whatever species or segment of society. The lanky, inquisitive boy was nicknamed “butterfly boy”, presaging his future role as a cross-pollinator of disciplines, a role that earned him the more prosaic title “last of the Renaissance men” used in newspaper headlines at his death in 2010. Where the logging roads ended and the trail up to Grouse Mountain started, he met the Mundays, pioneering alpinists, who built a cabin on Grouse. Phyllis and Don Munday spared time on the trail to share the young boy’s interests. Their trails continued to cross over the years, culminating in 1983, when Cowan as chancellor of the UVic awarded Phyllis an honorary degree for her contributions to “the conservation of our natural heritage.”

On his 12th birthday, his mother gave him a .22 rifle and taught him to use it. He started off shooting grouse for the pot. His choice spot was an inactive quarry two streets down from the Cowan’s. It had become a booming ground, or lek, for Blue Grouse in the spring. Grouse were one of the first birds Cowan studied in depth, in 1940. A half century later, when Birds of BC was written, the research had advanced on every level: genetic, behavioural and ecological. 

Where Cowan left off, his students picked up – from his first grad student, Jim Hatter, who became BC’s first game biologist, to Fred Zwickel and James Bendell, who wrote the definitive tome on the Blue Grouse. In the 70 years that Cowan had observed grouse, he had seen them go from an expanding population to a species at risk in the province.

Sooty grouse

Cowan’s 70 years of observation and research also represented one industrial timber harvest cycle. He lived long enough to observe first-hand that the fortunes of grouse and logging were inextricably and inversely linked. By the 1950s it was obvious that opening up “patches” of old-growth forest only offered temporary benefits to grouse, and that the loss of old-growth coastal Douglas-fir as winter habitat was lethal. Cowan witnessed the closing in of the even-aged forests and the subsequent declines – in some cases complete crashes – of many populations of birds and mammals. At an international congress of zoology in 1963, he told the audience that ”almost none of the threatened species is being menaced through direct killing by man (our earlier problem) [i.e., hunting]. Almost all that are presently in danger of extinction are now experiencing the consequences of alteration in their habitats.

Cowan noted, “My parents, particularly my mother, [Laura] believed in encouraging every interest that their young ones showed.” When Ian was 13, Laura bought him a second-hand bike on which he travelled alone to get farther afield for his expeditions. He used to ride as far as Steveston in the Fraser River delta, about 30 kilometres. Besides summer camping, every Easter weekend Laura would take the three children to Victoria to visit provincial institutions like the museum, library and archives. During one visit, Ian was encouraged to talk to the librarian, having exhausted his own bird book collection. It wasn’t surprising he went on to co-edit and write the full set of Birds of British Columbia from his 70s into his 90s.

Sharp-tailed Grouse specimen : adult male

Ian’s brother, Patrick, who was only two years younger, was a mathematician who won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. He later became the chief meteorologist for Canada as well as the first president of Simon Fraser University. Although geographically separated all their working lives, they kept each other professionally abreast of their respective disciplines. Patrick was one of the first Canadian meteorologists to alert policy-makers about climate change, as early as 1975. When he was executive director of the Science Council, he started a program called Living with Climatic Change and organized a conference for scientists and government officials from North America to alert them to the dangers. It would be another quarter of a century before the public and governments would even begin to grasp the significance of the situation. Patrick’s brother attended these gatherings and was quick to corroborate the impacts emerging in the biotic community. 

< Chapter 1: Edinburgh 1910-1913 Chapter 3: North Vancouver 1923-1925 >