Calgary

'Dean of Nature' Gus Yaki, beloved Calgary naturalist, dead at 87

Legendary Calgary birder and naturalist Gus Yaki, who inspired countless people to learn more about the world around them, died last week.

'It was the depth of his knowledge that just sort of poured out slowly when you were with him'

Calgary naturalist and renowned birder Gus Yaki, who helped establish the Nature Conservancy of Canada, died last Monday. He was 87. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

A legendary Calgary birder and naturalist who inspired countless people to learn more about the world around them has died.

Gus Yaki died Aug. 10 at the age of 87. 

Yaki grew up in Saskatchewan, where his long daily walks to school instilled in him an early love of nature. While living in Ontario in the 1970s, he operated a nature tour company, taking people across Canada and around the world, and helped to establish what would become the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

At the age of 72, after moving west from Ontario to Calgary in the early 1990s, he became involved with the Friends of Fish Creek Park Society and started a birding course with the group in 2005.

His birding classes with the society attracted hundreds of participants over the years and his thousands of presentations to groups at schools, libraries and community centres were extremely popular.

In 2017, at the age of 84, he organized and led a hike across southern Alberta to mark Canada 150 and support the study of birds and habitat conservation. 

In 2019, he received the Sovereign's Medal for Volunteers by the Governor General of Canada, and was recognized as one of Calgary's "Top 7 over 70."

His son, David Yaki, says letters from people who met his father over the years have been flooding in. 

"One of the emails I got was from a lady who said, 'I met your dad eight years ago and he introduced me to birding and I can't tell you how much he changed my life,'" he said.

"I was thinking about that and eight years ago my father was 79 and he had this terrific impact on people's lives at 79. And he didn't stop at 79, he did the same thing at 87."

Susan Church, who knew Yaki through their work with the Nature Conservancy Canada, says he was nicknamed the Dean of Nature.

"It was the depth of his knowledge that just sort of poured out slowly when you were with him and you realized that every sound and every plant and everything that moved in nature was something that he recognized," she said.

"He knew what it was, he knew why it fit there, he knew if it was an anomaly. It was wonderful to be around him. He oozed information."

Church said Yaki always had an attractive, boyish enthusiasm to him, but he also maintained quite a disciplined approach to birding and to learning about the natural world.

"He had a low tolerance for misbehaving. You dare not drop anything on the ground or leave it behind. It was an orderliness to how we watched for birds, signalled, did everything, all led by Gus," she said.

Although Yaki didn't come to Calgary until the 1990s, he quickly became plugged into the local naturalist community and made a tremendous impact, she said.

"He captured the city and turned us around and turned so many people into birders, and lovers of the nature that we have in our Calgary area and southern Alberta," she said.

"And I think that in itself has changed the lives of so many people and encouraged so many people to be more considerate of the environment."

David Yaki says for him, his dad was father and grandfather first, but his love of nature always shone through. 

"When the kids weren't calling for our attention, I'd follow my dad's lead and we'd pick up litter on the playground," he said.

"If he saw something that he could make better, he tried to make it better."

He says anyone who would like to remember Yaki's legacy can make a donation to the Nature Conservancy of Canada or the Alberta Wilderness Association.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Gus Yaki established the Friends of Fish Creek Park Society. In fact, he set up the society's birding course.
    Aug 20, 2020 1:01 PM MT

With files from Tahirih Foroozan

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