The man credited with bringing Canada's peregrine falcon back from the brink of extinction is being honoured for his legacy.

Richard Fyfe died on June 17. He was 85.

"He had a fascination with birds, especially with raptors and falcons. It was a lifelong passion," said provincial wildlife biologist Gordon Court, who delivered the eulogy for his mentor on Tuesday.

Richard Fyfe

The late Richard Fyfe, an acclaimed conservation scientist, is widely credited with bringing Canada's peregrine falcon populations back from the brink of extinction.

"He was an amazing speaker and amazing thinker."

Born in Saskatoon on Feb. 1, 1932, Fyfe grew up in rural Saskatchewan.

He married Lorraine Doll in 1957, and the couple began married life in the far reaches of the Canadian North.

Fyfe studied biology at the University of British Columbia and later taught elementary school in remote Arctic communities in Nunavut before starting his career as a conservation research scientist.

After spending time in Ontario and New Brunswick, the family finally settled in Fort Saskatchewan, where Fyfe was employed by the Canadian Wildlife Service for more than three decades.

Spearheading the peregrine recovery program remains his most notable achievement.

In 1970, a joint American-Canadian panel predicted the bird would disappear from North America by the end of the decade, and DDT was to blame.

The long-lasting agricultural pesticide, ingested through contaminated insects, worked its way into the reproductive systems of the birds, causing peregrine populations to plummet across the continent.

Eggs laid by the birds had shells so thin, they would crack under the weight of their nesting mothers.

Fyfe was not satisfied to watch the peregrine falcon face extinction. 

He began a captive breeding program in 1970, the first of its kind in Canada, an effort that was met with skepticism.

Few believed the falcons would manage to mate in captivity, let alone go on to survive in the wilderness after so much human interaction.

But Fyfe proved them wrong.

He collected a dozen birds from nesting sites across northern Alberta and set them up in old barns and sheds on his acreage outside Fort Saskatchewan. The birds thrived.

'The face of peregrine falcon conversation'

Two years later, the government established a breeding program in Wainwright, using Fyfe's original breeding stock to sire hundreds of hatchlings.

Hundreds of the birds were released from cliffs, rock faces and city skyscrapers across the country, helping the population grow for the first time in decades.

 

Fyfe will be remembered for his passion, and for his ability to speak on behalf of conservation worldwide, Court said

"He's very well remembered as being the face of peregrine falcon conversation in Canada, but he should also be remembered as one of the passionate scientists who spoke out against the misuse of pesticides," said Court. 

"He was as sharp as you can get. He was very good at convincing people to go the right way."

'He really charmed the king'

Court described his mentor as a soft-spoken man with "a considerable amount of charm." 

He recalled a strange interaction between Fyfe and the King of Saudi Arabia, an avid falconer.

During Pierre Trudeau's time as prime minister, Fyfe was asked to provide a white gyrfalcon to the Saudi king, as a gift from Canada.

"Richard and the bird were given the entire top section of  a 747 jet," he said, and arrived in Saudi Arabia to present the king with a white gyrfalcon.

Fyfe was supposed to remain in the background as a bird handler, but when the prime minister was forced to pull out of the meeting at the last minute, Fyfe became an unlikely diplomat.

"He was told ... don't expect to talk to the king, you don't smile, you don't shake his hand," recalls Court.

"But as soon as Richard walked through the door and the king saw that bird, there was a big smile and a big hand pump for him.

"He really charmed the king and the two of them had a talk so long that it delayed some international function for the king so I like to think Richard may have caused an international incident there."

In March 2000, Fyfe was made a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his outstanding contribution to conservation efforts.

'He was a great Canadian'

But the honour came after Fyfe retired early amid a storm of controversy and false accusations that he was running an international falcon-smuggling ring.

He was eventually vindicated, but the controversy left him feeling alienated from the scientific community.

"That's probably the most bitter and controversial part of his career. That spurred an investigation and many careers were ruined.

"That was certainly my motivation to make a case for him for the Order of Canada and I think that went a long way in making up for that cloud of suspicion."

After retiring, Fyfe worked as an environmental consultant, volunteered with a number of conservation organizations, and continued rearing his beloved birds.

Fyfe is survived by his wife of 60 years Lorraine Fyfe, five children and 15 grandchildren. A funeral service was held Tuesday at Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Fort Saskatchewan.

"He was a great Canadian," said Court.

"He had a remarkable, storied life. I'll sure miss him."