Thursday, September 16, 2010

September 16, 2010 Stewart D. MacDonald 1927-2010

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of Stewart D. MacDonald, Canadian Ornithologist, at age 83 on September 10, 2010. He was born April 22, 1927 in Bayhead, Nova Scotia. Stu began his career as a technician in behavioral science at the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa, now the Canadian Museum of Nature. He later attended the University of Iowa and returned to the museum in Ottawa as Assistant Curator of Ornithology. Stu was an accomplished artist and prepared the line drawings and maps in “The Birds of Canada” (Godfrey 1966, 1986). He spent much of his career studying Arctic birds including Ross's Gull and Ivory Gull. He retired in 1988 as Curator of Vertebrate Ethology at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Stu received the Massey Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 1992 for his distinguished work as an Arctic explorer and ornithologist specializing in animal behaviour. He was generous with his time and vast knowledge of bird behaviour. Stu was a mentor to many birders and will be remembered with great fondness.

For more information please contact his son Bruce MacDonald at

Bruce Di Labio

Stewart D. MacDonald

In 1992, Stewart D. MacDonald was awarded the Massey Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. It was the icing on the cake for this arctic biologist after a career spent researching arctic ecosystems and championing the cause for conservation of this fragile environment. Retired and living in rural Dunrobin west of Ottawa, Stewart reflects on some of the milestones on his journey. It began on the ancestral family farm in Nova Scotia. He used to watch Cliff Swallows forming mud pellets for their nests while he was still in the carriage (although admittedly he does not recall). Even at this early age Stewart exhibited an intense curiosity about bird behaviour. This interest grew through his teens as he began to see the relationship of birds to their habitats. He said he was so fascinated with the marsh on their farm that “I frequented it almost as often as a bittern.” He befriended several knowledgeable people who encouraged his interests. In high school he became involved with entomological research programs and did a credible job for the Dept. of Agriculture in Fredericton. He was also showing skill in wildlife illustration. This combination helped land him a job as a technician with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. After finishing school he moved to Ottawa in 1947 for some high living at $100/month. “I was overwhelmed at the thought of having such wealth”. Stewart graduated from preparing mammal skulls to bird specimens collected by newly arrived ornithologist Earl Godfrey (author of The Birds of Canada). He thought it was fabulous to be able to handle so many species that he had only seen from a distance. His first trip to the arctic came in 1949 when he was the Canadian representative on the Smithsonian Expedition to Prince Patrick Island. It was an intensely interesting summer studying birds, mammals, plants, invertebrates, geology and fossils and the beginning of a career-long love affair with the arctic. He returned north four times before departing for Iowa in 1956 to obtain

a degree. He returned in 1959 as Assistant Curator of Birds, having developed a strong interest in grouse behaviour. He was later made the museum’s Curator of Vertebrate Ethology (animal behaviour). For 20 years, beginning in 1968, he spent his summers at the research station he established in Polar Bear Pass on Bathurst Island. This outpost served a generation of budding biologists and nature illustrators who came to research the north and

sample its beauty. Our knowledge of arctic ecosystems and the biology of a variety of mammals and birds is due

in no small part to his efforts there. Stewart led the charge to protect this unique area from development by oil and mineral interests. After 18 trying years, Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area was established. He was also instrumental in the designation of Seymour Island Bird Sanctuary, site of a major breeding colony of Ivory Gulls. Over the years he has banded about 1,500 adults and young. Stewart is a storyteller and in his time he has amassed quite a few of them. His love of the north and his efforts to protect its fragile ecosystem put him face to face with thousands of people across North America. Through public presentations, which featured his excellent photographic

skills, he instilled a sense of respect and awe for the arctic. This arctic legacy continued through a museum travelling exhibit that toured Europe and North America for over 11 years. Included among Stewart’s accomplishments is finding the first nest of Ross’s Gull in North America, providing drawings for The Birds of

Canada, doing the taxidermy for a number of the breathtaking dioramas in the Museum of Nature in Ottawa

and developing an extensive body of research on grouse. Today he quietly enjoys nature at home, where Bluebirds nest on the property and Pileated Woodpeckers frequent the feeders. Looking back, “The greatest satisfaction was providing an opportunity for promising young students to experience field biology.” This soft-spoken man has left a large footprint on the Canadian landscape.

Ontario Birding News

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