Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 3: North Vancouver 1923-1925

Dear Sir, I am keenly interested in birds

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

By 1923, at the age of 13, “butterfly boy’s” adventures in the North Shore mountains would lead him to his future mentors. Stumbling upon a Scout troop in the forest was the first step. While working on his naturalist’s badge, he was given the second opportunity that was to alter the course of his life. An advertisement had come out from the Dominion Parks Branch that any Scout who kept a diary of birds for a year and submitted it would receive a new field guide to the birds of Canada. A letter to the curator of the BC Provincial Museum, Francis Kermode, sent by the young Ian Cowan suggests his journal was well under way with observations in October of 1925. The letter reads: “As I cannot see any record in your catalogue of British Columbia Birds of Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus being found in this district, I am writing to tell you that on October 22, 1925, while I was walking up a road beside a big meadow… I was able to clearly discern this bird, it had a yellow head and neck and dark-brown body. I was so close to it (being only about 15 ft. from it) that I could not fail to recognize it as the Yellow-headed Blackbird.” He went on to complete his journal and the prize was a new field guide to the birds of Canada with more chances to correspond with a Dominion scientist—in his case, James (Jim) A. Munro.

Ian McTaggart Cowan in Boy Scout uniform (1919)

The budding young naturalist couldn’t have guessed the background events that had led to this simple exchange of correspondence, a correspondence and friendship that would continue until Munro’s death in 1959. Nor could he have guessed that Munro was part of a larger secret brotherhood that was to extend its influence into virtually every wildlife and conservation institution of North America and guide Cowan through his formative years. Nor did he learn until much later, when he himself joined the brotherhood, that Munro, like his fellow naturalists and scientists, had vowed to mentor the next generation to strengthen conservation and legitimize their vocation. The reasons for the secrecy reached back into the historic struggle in Europe between the Darwinists and the creationists — an ever-evolving ideological battle. The struggle had crossed the Atlantic as new world scientists challenged big resource interests. An invitation to join the scientists had arrived in Cowan’s mailbox.

Jim Munro was the chief federal migratory bird officer for the western provinces, where he flourished in his roles as both ornithologist and educator. In their first exchanges, Munro’s intent to instruct is as clear as Cowan’s desire to be instructed. One of the species the two took up correspondence about was a finch that Cowan had called House Finch but Munro had corrected as Purple Finch. The two species are easily confused: the House Finch is redder and slighter, but back in 1926 there would have been no comparison possible for Cowan around Vancouver. House Finches weren’t yet present in British Columbia, their range then ended south of the border. Unbeknownst to both Cowan and Munro at the time, however, the House Finch was expanding its range northward due to warming temperatures. Coincidentally, it was Cowan who recorded the first House Finch sighting in BC and the first nest record for both the interior and the coast, in 1935. He had just returned to Victoria after completing his doctorate in Berkeley, California, where the birds were a prominent feature, “and the House Finch song was still echoing in my mind. I was walking to work past the Crystal Pool [of downtown Victoria] and there it was. Its nest was within my reach and they raised three broods that summer.”

Purple finch and house finch

In 1926 Munro had the new field guide, Birds of Western Canada – hot off the press – to offer the Scouts that responded. It was written by his colleague Percy Algernon Taverner, the chief ornithologist of the National Museum of Natural Sciences (later Museum of Nature) and illustrated by his neighbour, artist–naturalist Major Allan Brooks, at Okanagan Landing. Taverner was also a member of the brotherhood. More than just a bird man, he was one of the old-school generalists, “intelligent, passionately dedicated, eclectic, in their scientific interests, but largely self-taught.”

One of the autographs in the book given to Cowan was that of James B. Harkin, head of the new Dominion Parks Branch. Harkin was one of the key instigators of the secret brotherhood with his colleague, Hoyes Lloyd. Harkin brought to his job what historian Andrew Burnett has called a “commitment to a philosophy of parks that bordered on the mystical. He was deeply influenced by the writings of the American conservationist John Muir and he believed fervently in the recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual values of unspoiled wilderness.” Harkin’s vocation, culminated in an epiphany one night around a campfire in 1912, the same year he was made administrator of the national parks. Harkin had just made a strenuous hike over Vermilion Pass to an Alpine Club of Canada camp in the Rockies, which he describes this way:

…watching the firelight play upon the faces of the climbers who were, like myself, luxuriating in the sense of physical well-being and the spiritual peace which comes from a day spent in hard exercise in the clean, life-giving air of the mountains, when I heard the gaiety of the conversation and experienced the comradeship which grows out of dangers and pleasures shared in common, culminating in the subtle fraternity of the camp fire, I realized very strongly the uses of the wilderness.

The Whisky Jack, or Canada Jay, was also there that day in camp about whom Taverner writes, “Lonely places are its favourite haunts, and as soon as the temporary camp becomes a permanent settlement, it deserts the neighbourhood and retires to more secluded localities, or possibly suffers the fate resultant on too great confidence, for often civilized man is more intolerant of wild life than are more primitive hunters and trappers.”

Yellow-headed black bird

Cowan had wandered into a supportive cohort of mentors. Jim Munro, Percy Taverner, Hoyes Lloyd and James Harkin were some of the Canadian members of the Brotherhood of Venery, or the ‘B’ as they were known amongst themselves. Started in 1925, the ‘B’ drew from wildlife and conservation professions and non-profit societies on both sides of the border. One of their goals was to shape, guide and foster the interests and vocations of the generation that followed after them – and Cowan was a prime candidate. The nationwide contest for young naturalists by the Dominion scientists, to which Cowan the young Scout had responded, was just part of a larger strategy. 

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