As a young biologist and a newly married husband, the Yukon offered Dave Mossop a chance to combine these recent developments in his life.
“[Grace and I] were looking for an adventurous place to have a honeymoon, and I had the chance to research ptarmigan up here,” says Mossop. It’s almost 40 years later and, in a way, Mossop is still on vacation.
Since he was a kid, being a bird biologist is all he really wanted to be. His inspiration came from early interactions he had with the animals. “I remember, I would imitate a Black-capped Chickadee, and it would respond.”
Mossop was hooked, and he came to understand that studying birds would fulfil one of his fondest goals: “I had a childhood dream to never work because I would enjoy what I was doing. And I’ve never worked a day in my life yet,” says Mossop with a relaxed smile.
Today, he passes along his love of biology as an instructor for Yukon College — “I love teaching,” — and his approach to the subjects he teaches is decidedly of the old-school variety.
“I always love to learn by being out in the field,” Mossop says. His enthusiasm for hands-on experience seems to be infectious among his pupils. “I’ve got a lot of students who help me with research,” he says.
Being out on the land also provides Mossop with the opportunity to immerse himself in the Yukon’s wilderness and to come to a greater understanding of the various forces that drive our ecosystems.
“In the Yukon, our natural systems are more or less intact and my scientific ‘jollies’ come from understanding natural systems.”
It is his desire to maintain the integrity of these systems that has led Mossop to become passionate about conservation and, specifically, the protection of endangered species.
“‘Endangered species’ is such an in-your-face problem,” says Mossop, “It’s such an obvious way in which [humans] are doing harm.”
Among his efforts to revive species at risk, Mossop is perhaps most famous for his Peregrine Falcon research. In the 1970s, these birds were brought to the brink of extinction and it served as a wake-up call for species protection.
“The Peregrine disappeared and it scared everybody spitless. It became the flagship of the modern conservation movement,” he says.
It was obvious that something needed to be done, but it wasn’t clear exactly what.
Mossop rose to the challenge. “We got to experiment with captive breeding and making birds have more young in the wild, and various forms of protection for the falcon. It was wild.”
The Peregrine Falcon has largely recovered, but perhaps Mossop has reason to be concerned about another endangered species: himself.
“Nowadays, many people learn biology by staring at a computer screen. Naturalists are getting rare,” he says.
For Mossop, being out on the land is a “natural history experience” – an opportunity to learn lessons that the digital age would rather ignore.
To learn more about the birds that Dave Mossop has studied, visit www.allaboutbirds.org.