Counting Birds, Wrestling Hawks: All in a day’s work for John Tschopp
If a cold and hungry hawk is going to get itself entangled in the netting of your chicken coop, attempting to source itself a nice New Year’s Day dinner, the best possible scenario is to be John Tschopp’s neighbour.
The 40-year Pemberton resident unwittingly designated himself as my go-to guy for any bird-related questions, when he kindly replied to an emailed “what’s the blurry bird in this picture” inquiry, with a spot-on identification and no suggestion that emails from complete strangers are a nuisance.
I’d shot the photo through the glass sliding door with a baby in one arm. The bird had its beak down and it’s head obscured, but he pulled an ID and emailed me back: “it’s a male Northern Flicker. (The female doesn’t have any red on the cheeks.) The bird is one of the year-round Pemberton birds.”
(He even sent me a back a photo: “In our yard it feeds on our pecker stick with the woodpeckers.”)
It’s not that I’m particularly into birds. But there’s something about being able to name things that brings you into closer relationship with your surroundings. No matter how dusty my childhood memories, I’ll always be a transplant here, and that slippery-footed stance in this world gets more secure whenever I can grab on to a word, a name, a back-story.
For Tschopp, who left his native Switzerland for Canada once he’d completed his apprenticeship as a machinist, birds have been part of what rooted him more deeply in Pemberton, too. “It started with photography,” he tells me over coffee at Grimm’s Deli.
Tschopp established the Beaverlodge Machine Shop in 1978. He’s worked on anything metal that needed repairing in Pemberton since – from the Ministry of Highway’s avalanche guns above the Duffey Lake Road with his mobile welder, to equipment on Whistler Mountain, to logging and farming machinery.
He still has a fully outfitted shop on his Pemberton Meadows property, although he recently sold one of his machines and bought a band saw mill instead. “When you’ve been lugging around steel for 55 years of your life, your back tells you it’s time to shift to something lighter.”
He milled the purlins for the Downtown Barn so masterfully that the Timber Framers Guild acclaimed the accuracy in size and square of his work. “This town has treated me well. We raised three children here. It was one way of giving a little bit back,” Tschopp says of the month of volunteer labour he contributed, alongside neighbour Bob Gilmore, to milling for the barn.
Twenty years ago, he machined an adaptor so he could set up a basic digital camera to look through a telescope, so he could take pictures of the birds in his yard. “That was before the fancy cameras were available. Those were my first bird pictures. And then I started wondering, what did I take a picture of? You want to get the names. One thing led to another.” Including a better camera.
Now he maintains an email list of interested residents with whom he shares bird photos, updates and the bi-annual bird count events, having inherited the role of coordinating the Christmas Bird Count from its instigator Hugh Naylor.
“We don’t have a chairman, we’re not organized. I’m apolitical. If I have political problems, I’d rather go talk to my neighbour face to face than write letters to the paper,” he says.
The bird business is just a hobby. “I’m not scientifically serious about it. I can’t get all upset because I couldn’t find this bird or that bird. It’s fun. It gets me outside.”
It also confirms his preference to keep politics and religion at arm’s length. “To birds, political boundaries mean nothing,” he says.
His generosity replying to random emails and expansive way of thinking start to make sense. It makes the world contract in a beautiful way to realize that the 60 species of birds identified in Pemberton this winter include some who have flown south here, from Siberia, or the Arctic Ocean.
“Pemberton is a very nice birding location,” says Tschopp, “because in winter time, we have just as many species as in the middle of summer. They’re just different ones.”
One summer, University researchers caught three veeries from Tschopp’s property and fitted them with geolocators. The devices were simple – they just recorded data, but didn’t transmit it – so for the research to be complete, the tagged birds needed to be caught upon their return. Two were found back at Tschopp’s and the data showed that they had spent the winter in the Amazon rainforest.
“They migrate singly,” says Tschopp. “Each individual does the trip on its own. Nobody shows them the way. The navigation is genetically imprinted. They head off in the dark of the night, find their way to the Amazon, and then they come back.”
All of which is a very long preface to my opening assertion – that if a red-tailed hawk is going to become entangled in the mesh of your chicken coop on New Year’s Day, you’d be happy to have Tschopp by your side.
“When my neighbour called, I went over straight away to free the bird. We both work gloves. The plan was that he would grab the bird and I would cut the mesh. When my neighbour grabbed the bird, there was a bit of a struggle. I proceeded to cut the trapped foot free, and noticed a lot of blood flying around.”
The hawk’s talon had punctured a blood vessel in his neighbour’s wrist. “It made a heck of a mess.” Then, the bird was put into a box, in the kitchen, to warm up, and the neighbour sent off to get a tetanus shot. After a few hours, the bird was set free to fly on its way, and the neighbour was recovering nicely.
“The red-tailed hawk never did get a chicken,” notes Tschopp, drily, “but it was a bit of excitement to start the year.”