To the untrained ear, the twittering of birds is as meaningful as the babble in a crowded restaurant. But ornithologist Robert Lemon could discern the difference among hundreds of bird calls and assign meaning to them.
His specialty was the northern cardinal, a species that differs from most songbirds in that the females sing. Lemon's ear was so attuned that he was able to pick out the difference in dialect between the song of a cardinal from Quebec and a cardinal from Ontario. In the patch of New Brunswick forest where he conducted field research, the professor could distinguish between dozens of calls, and know if one bird was the offspring of another.
Most importantly, he recognized that bird songs are not random. After a chance meeting at a party in Montreal, Lemon and Christopher Chatsworth, an English statistician, began to analyze the sequences of cardinal song in detail and apply a mathematical model to it. They concluded that each song depended on which call immediately preceded it in sequence.
"My dad's work countered some of the lingering assumptions in science that humans were unique in being capable of more than the most basic of cognitive functions," says Lemon's daughter, Joanna. "His work demonstrated that even small birds with tiny brains were more sophisticated than previously expected."
Lemon's description of song sequences in cardinals and numerous other species provided science with insight into how behaviour is generated in the brain. Considered groundbreaking at the time, his work still has potential to be useful for understanding behaviour at the neurological level. Lemon published close to 100 papers and attended many international conferences to talk about how birds sing, and how they develop songs.
Robert Earl Lemon was born on Feb. 1, 1933, in West Lorne, Ont. He was the second son of Victor Earl Lemon, owner of a general store, and Grace Lemon, a homemaker and church organist. On Wednesday afternoons, Victor closed early and frequently took his wife and sons to the surrounding countryside to watch birds. He had a strong interest in nature and owned many field guides to birds, wildflowers and trees.
Gardening, baseball and religion also played a large part in the Lemons' life. The family were members of a strict Christian sect that forbade any activity, even doing laundry, on Sunday. Alcohol and tobacco were also taboo. A traditional patriarch, Victor sat at the head of the dinner table expecting to be deferred to by his wife and children. Issues and emotions were never discussed and the children were pushed away if they tried to hug their father, a family dynamic that would later affect Robert's life.
Although neither parent had a university degree, reading was encouraged and both Lemon sons pursued academic careers. Robert never wavered in his desire to study birds and their song, which did not impress his parents. They considered the study of birds to be a hobby, not a vocation.
But their son ignored their disapproval. Attending the University of Western Ontario on a scholarship, he earned all his science degrees at Western, graduating in 1964 with a PhD in zoology. During a year spent in California, between finishing his master's and starting his PhD, his letters home were full of observations of local birds.
From 1965 to 1999, when he retired, he became first an assistant, then a full a professor of biology at McGill, teaching ornithology.
His career took a slight detour in 1972 when he became involved in the formation of the Macdonald Raptor Research Centre, a McGill facility set up to breed peregrine falcons during a time when birds of prey were becoming extinct because of the pesticide DDT. Lemon was on the scientific advisory board making sure the centre pursued viable scientific goals and objectives.
As a teacher, Lemon cared deeply about his undergraduate students and would frequently socialize with them over beer. The discussion of a particular bird would invariably be accompanied by Lemon whistling its song, much to the glee and amusement of his pupils.
Daniel Weary, a former student, recalls field trips around mosquito-infested alder swamps in early spring with his professor.
"He would tramp around endlessly shouting out patterns on the coloured rings we put on bird's legs to identify them. 'Red over yellow on the right, black over white on the left,' while I clumsily tried to focus my parabolic microphone on the singing male. Later, I would try, and usually fail, to see the bird with my binoculars, but Bob would have already surged ahead to find a hidden nest or identify a neighbouring male."
Such single-minded focus on his work is remembered less fondly by Lemon's ex-wife, Nancy. The two met in 1967 when she was working as a science librarian at McGill. Lemon impressed her as being an intelligent, serious and stable. They married in 1968, and shared a passion for singing in amateur choirs. Joanna was born in 1969, followed by a son, Mark, in 1971.
With Lemon immersed in his work, however, family time suffered. "We went birdwatching with him occasionally," says Nancy, "but he was always 10 feet ahead while I was dragging the children along behind him. ... Even when he was at home his mind was occupied with his work."
Joanna agrees, saying that childhood memories of her father are notable for his absence. Aside from a fondness for jazz and classical music, and an ability to write comedy skits for the annual biology department Christmas show, science occupied Lemon's every waking hour.
When his marriage ended in 1990, Joanna describes her father as being angry and confused.
"My dad was not a very good person at dealing with emotional things. I don't think he ever learned how. He never learned from his parents how to talk about what he wanted or expected in a relationship. So how could he produce that type of interaction when he didn't know it even existed?"
But after retirement, and with the arrival of grandchildren, Lemon's relationship with Nancy and his adult children improved enormously. "I feel he is a good example of someone who became more open as he grew older," Nancy says. "He was able to see his life and how he had lived it and to change and adapt in positive ways."
Lemon retired to Peterborough, Ont., where he maintained his contacts in the world of ornithology and played bridge. An angiogram at Kingston General hospital indicated the need for heart surgery. The procedure seemed to go well, but he died the next day, on March 23, at the age of 79.
He leaves Nancy, Joanna and Mark and granddaughters Kaede Grace and Mizuki Claire.