Alan Loughrey sighted carefully down the barrel of his BB gun, drawing a bead on a bird some distance away in the bush.
The 10-year-old boy loved the outdoors and liked shooting birds in the forest near his family’s cottage in Port Stanley, Ont., on Lake Erie.
“I was taking aim at a small dark bird on a branch when it lifted its head and I noticed a gorgeous flame orange neck and throat. I decided it was too beautiful to shoot,” he related in a family memoir decades later.
It was a Blackburnian warbler, and Loughrey felt happy that he spared the bird’s life. He didn’t know it at the time, but that act of mercy set him along a path that would see him rise to the top of Canada’s wildlife community.
Known across North America as one of the pre-eminent ornithologists, wildlife biologists and Arctic mammalogists of his generation, Loughrey also devoted years of his life to groundbreaking studies of the walrus and caribou herds of the Canadian Arctic.
Retiring in 1983 after nine years as the director-general of the Canadian Wildlife Service, Loughrey also made a major contribution in helping to save several endangered species, including the whooping crane and peregrine falcon.
He died in Ottawa on Oct. 7, of pneumonia. He was 85.
Alan George Loughrey was born in Toronto on Jan. 12, 1927. His father, George, was a bank manager and later moved the family to St. Marys, a village north of London, Ont.
After sparing that legendary warbler in 1937, Loughrey started spending all his time watching birds and reading everything he could find on ornithology.
At 16, he was asked to join the McIlwraith Ornithological Society, now the London Bird Club, and was soon appointed recording secretary.
Studying biology at the University of Western Ontario in the late 1940s, he was out walking one day when he heard the call of an unfamiliar bird. He raced to get his professor and together they found the first Brewster’s warbler ever seen in the area.
Loughrey was passionate about birds, said his son, Ned. “One of his lifelong missions was to educate me to recognize all the bird calls I might hear. It was dozens and dozens.”
How did the elder Loughrey remember so many different calls himself? Decades later, he confessed to his son how he did it. “Every spring, I go up to the parks and practice.”
Loughrey taught his two children to love the outdoors, along with hunting and fishing. Although he was a notable naturalist and conservationist, he saw nothing wrong with hunting for food, his son said.
“I asked him once, how can a conservationist go out and shoot ducks? He answered: ‘As long as you follow the rules.’ He was a stickler for that. I thought it was an interesting contradiction. He loved hunting and was an excellent shot.”
During his summer breaks from university, Loughrey worked as a provincial park naturalist. It was a chance to put into practice what he had learned in the classroom.
“I discovered nesting prothonotary warblers and we also stumbled upon the annual egg laying of the spiny softshell turtle. Some 20 or 30 female turtles had come ashore on the sandy spit of Lake Erie in Rondeau Park. [It] was a very exciting scene,” he wrote.
In 1951, Loughrey was hired by the Canadian Wildlife Service to work as its wildlife biologist in the eastern Arctic, for an annual salary of $2,740. He took to the life with a passion, immersing himself in Inuit culture for more than 10 years.
“He loved the North. He appreciated the deep knowledge the Inuit have of their environment. He was one of the first to think that way. There was a mutual respect. He learned their language and culture,” Ned Loughrey said.
Building igloos, driving dog teams and killing seals to feed his dogs, learning how to survive in the harsh and unforgiving Arctic, Loughrey so impressed his hosts that they gave him his own nickname, “Omayok,” or “the animal man.” That touched him greatly.
Loughrey was one of the first scientists to use small aircraft to observe caribou herds, photographing them, estimating their sizes and tracing their migratory patterns. That was groundbreaking.
His study area took in the winter range of the Great Bear/Fort Rae caribou herd and the Beverly Lake herd. The following year, in 1952, he flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a biologist observer, in a converted Lancaster bomber.
His mission was to report on ice conditions in the northern shipping lanes and to conduct aerial wildlife surveys on Baffin and Melville Islands. He loved field work so much that he gave up his PhD studies to go back to it.
Ann Bowman remembers her “remarkable” father who “instilled a deep interest in the natural world around us, from an awareness of the language of bird song, to the value of every part of the natural chain.”
One day at the family cottage, father and daughter were watching “the neverending flight of cormorants. He commented that we need to see the flocks winging overhead as a river of life. It changed my view profoundly,” she said.
By the end of the 1960s, Loughrey was a senior executive with the wildlife service. One of his major projects ensured that measures designed to protect migratory birds, such as the whooping crane and peregrine falcon, were installed in every necessary jurisdiction in Canada and the United States.
He also helped to negotiate agreements to protect the caribou that migrate between Yukon and Alaska. A favourite project saw the establishment of Long Point Provincial Park, which juts into Lake Erie. Millions of migrating birds cross it every year on their way across the lake. It had originally been a camp for a club of American hunters.
A quiet and reserved man, Loughrey rarely gave his children compliments “but when he did, it made a big impression; it meant something. His expectations were high, that’s why we tried so hard,” said Ned Loughrey.
After retiring from the wildlife service in 1983, he spent two years as a senior scientific adviser on environmental affairs to the deputy minister of Environment Canada.
Alan Loughrey leaves his son, Ned, daughter Ann, sister Noreen and five grandchildren. His wife, Marjorie, predeceased him in 2005 after 44 years of marriage.