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The Naturalist ? 80 Years of Observations


Dr. William E. Ricker passed quietly away in his sleep on Sept. 8, 2001, age 93. Bill had a marvellous power of observation which was recorded and collected for about fourscore years of his life. Born in Ontario in 1908 to a father who taught science at the high school and "normal" school level, he began observations of the celestial heavens at an early age and was totally familiar with the star charts which he used as a teenager at North Bay.

Soon after, his interests also turned to biological organisms and he began compiling observation lists of birds, while hiking the shoreline of nearby Lake Nippissing. At the end of high school he had already a substantial "lifer" list. Thereafter, while attending the University of Toronto, he would come home at Christmas to conduct the first Audubon Christmas bird counts for North Bay in the mid 1920s, which were usually alone. Today, North Bay has the highest numbers for all such counts in North America with 900 to 1,000 participants.

At university, Bill?s interests switched from the physical and ornithological realms to botany and fisheries biology, at the urging of several aggressive professors, notably, Drs. Harkness, Dymond, and Walker. He won a prize for dry mounting and correctly identifying the most plant specimens, collected over a summer period as an undergrad. His first scientific contribution to the literature was on the stream ecology of speckled trout (eastern brook trout), published as an undergrad in 1929. It fostered further field work for a quick Masters thesis (granted 1931), before Bill went west to begin a long study of Cultus Lake and its plankton and fish populations, requiring nearly five years of all-season field work.

Bill lived a simple life at Cultus, spending nearly all of his time identifying and observing the flora and fauna of the Chilliwack River basin and Sumas Prairie area of the Fraser floodplain. Vast insect collection focussed on butterflies, dragonflies, and especially stone flies, the latter a staple diet of the salmonid family of fishes especially. At least one day a week would be a hike to the slopes of the region, helping to construct a trail up Liumchen Mountain which is still in popular use today. An impressive list of identified plants and birds was compiled from the ramblings. The word was out throughout the area that a young naturalist was cataloguing everything in the area. Old timers of Chilliwack still remember him.

Bill left the southwest corner of B.C. in 1939 to take a professor posting at Indiana University as an ornithologist, aquatic ecologist, limnologist, as well as a biostatistics instructor (an emerging new field). Mandatory autumn Saturday morning bird hikes with his students drifted into the annual Audubon Christmas bird count, followed by a winter season of extracurricular cave exploration with some students. Field work on fish populations occupied the summer.

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