Prominent conservationist was the ‘true force of nature’

On a winter day when he was 92, Bruce Falls took his family on a three-hour walk around his 180-acre property in Ontario to monitor forest bird populations as he had done for years. Despite the deep snow, they visited all the sites near Peterborough to ensure they were still accessible.

“My legs hurt, but this was something he wanted to do and surprisingly he had no problem doing it,” recalled Falls’s son Stephen.

But those special sites will no longer have visits from J. Bruce Falls. The prominent Canadian conservationist died last week at his family home in Toronto at the age of 100.

Falls is remembered by family, friends and the Canadian conservation community as a defender of nature and a leader in conservation and bird studies, which was his main interest. His impact resonates through institutions like Canada Bird Studieshe Nature Conservation Canada and the University of Toronto (U of T). He was also a pioneer of bird atlases.

Even at age 97, when Falls could only walk on flat terrain with a walker, he still watched loons in a nearby Muskoka lake and insisted on visits for breeding studies and fishing, Stephen said.

“He thought he could do a rocky portage to visit the lake by canoe and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

However, his father ran out of strength halfway, so Stephen and his brother strapped him to his walker and carried him the rest of the way. He was then lowered from a beaver dam into a canoe.

“Pulling a 97-year-old man out of a canoe onto a beaver dam in the late afternoon was a death-defying feat,” Stephen said. “Of course, he wanted to come back the following year, but his children who were over 60 years old were not up to the task. I am sure he would tell her about the healing power of nature and how much his life was enriched by such experiences.”

Bruce Falls and his sons Stephen and Robert in Muskoka in 2004. Photo by Jill Unhola

Falls graduated from U of T in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in biology with honors and earned a doctorate in zoology, specializing in the behavior of small mammals. He entered the university as a professor in 1954 and conducted extensive field studies in Algonquin Park, publishing more than 100 scientific articles.

Bruce Falls is remembered by family, friends and the Canadian conservation community as a defender of nature and a leader in conservation and bird studies, which was his main interest. #BirdStudies #ClimateChange

“He was a pioneer in the study of bird song and its relationship with territorial behavior, basing his findings on field experiments,” reads a U of T statement. “He and his students also investigated two color phases of white-throated sparrows that differ in reproductive behavior and ecology.”

Falls was active in conservation efforts, co-founding the Nature Conservancy of Canada in 1962 and later serving as its president. He also played key roles in organizations such as Bird Studies Canada and the Long Point Bird Observatory. Recognized for his lifelong dedication to nature conservation and his innovative research, Falls was awarded the Order of Canada in 2017.

“As founder of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in the early 1960s, Bruce fundamentally reshaped the approach to conservation in Ontario and across Canada. NCC is now the nation’s leading nonprofit private land conservation organization,” said John Riley, former NCC scientific director and national director of conservation strategies, who had a long professional relationship with Falls.

“Bruce Falls was the most prominent leader in bird conservation and studies in Canada in his generation,” Riley said.

After World War II, Falls recognized the urgency of identifying Canada’s threatened natural areas, Riley said. He led Canada’s efforts in the International Biological Program, mobilizing volunteers to document key natural areas across the country.

“Dr. Bruce Falls was a pioneer and a true force for nature,” said Catherine Grenier, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, in a statement shared with Canadian National Observer. “He taught us all to appreciate our natural world. Today we mourn the loss of a generous and thoughtful man who made an immense contribution to conservation across this country. His passion and dedication will be appreciated by generations to come.”

Falls was deeply concerned about climate change and felt it was an imminent crisis that needed more attention, his son said.

“He touched so many lives and affected so many incredible organizations throughout his life,” Stephen said. “He would say let’s pay attention to the natural world, that all citizens should be watchdogs. Whether by actively participating or casting votes, we must balance our economic needs with the needs of the natural world.”

In an interview to mark the NCC’s 50th anniversary, Falls said: “In many ways, for many people, contact with nature is important. We need it for our own health at least. “We needed areas where scientists could study nature to try to unlock some of the information we need to manage the rest of the environment.”

Certainly, the Falls family’s life centered around outdoor activities, Stephen recalled. Weekends, summer and Christmas holidays were generally spent in the forest or at the lake.

“We grew up practically on a daily dose of nature, and it was medicine that served us well,” Stephen said.

“When my brothers speak, we often talk about what we have witnessed in the natural world. There’s nothing like getting out into nature to stay physically and mentally healthy. “Just look at my 100-year-old father as proof of the invigorating power of nature.”

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