Hamilton Mack Laing

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Hamilton Mack Laing
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Born(1883-02-03)February 3, 1883
Hensall, Ontario, Canada
DiedFebruary 15, 1982(1982-02-15) (aged 99)
  • Naturalist
  • educator
  • artist
  • adventurer
  • author

David Hamilton Mack Laing (February 3, 1883 - February 15, 1982) was a Canadian naturalist, educator, artist, adventurer, and author.

Early Years

Hamilton Mack Laing (Mack) was born in Hensall, Ontario on February 3, 1883, the son of Scottish immigrant, William Oswald Laing (1841-1924) and Irish immigrant, Rachel Mack (1852-1934). In 1872 Mack’s father, William, and his brother, Thomas, established pioneer homesteads three miles north of Steinbach, Manitoba. In the winter of 1882-83, William and Rachel returned to her family homestead in Hensall where Mack was born.[1][2]

Although born in Ontario, Mack always considered himself a pioneer of Western Canada. On his parent’s homestead, Mack discovered his interest in natural history. Birds were the first and major passion of his life. As Mack grew older, he learned to hunt. By the age of eleven Mack was allowed to use his father’s rifle. His childhood responsibility of protecting the farm from predators and pests had a lifelong impact on his relationship with nature.

Mack’s early education was at Clearsprings Rural School a mile from the Laing homestead. In 1898 he left to attend high school at the Winnipeg Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg. There he completed his schooling to qualify for teacher training. In June 1900, Mack obtained his third-class Normal School teachers diploma.[1][2]


Mack’s teaching career began in a one-room schoolhouse at Glenora, Manitoba where he taught from 1901 to 1903.[1] The rural school was situated in a region with abundant wildlife. At Glenora he learned three important skills which he would employ later in life as a field naturalist: he began a daily nature diary, he began to draw his bird specimens, and he learned taxidermy.

Mack taught next at Oak Lake, Manitoba.[1] While there, he joined the League of American Sportsmen, a conservation group opposed to market hunting and promoted the preservation of game birds.

In 1904 and 1905, Mack taught at Boissevain, Manitoba. During his time there, Mack took a correspondence course in story writing offered by the National Press Association.[1]

Mack took a break from teaching in 1906 and returned to Winnipeg to upgrade his qualifications to teach high school. While in Winnipeg, Mack learned photography and began writing.

With his professional first class teaching certificate he became the school principal of Oakwood High School in Oak Lake, a job he held until 1911.[1] Mack continued drawing, photographing and hunting. He also became a soccer player, baseball coach and started the first Boy Scout troop in Manitoba.[1]


Mack’s writing was especially influenced by Canadian naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton. Mack followed in the footsteps of Seton, who had written the basic textbook on Manitoban natural history in addition to his fictional animal stories.

Mack submitted a story entitled The End of the Trail to the New York Tribune, it was accepted and published on March 24, 1907.[1] The success of that story convinced Mack to become a nature writer. In the intervening years he wrote some nine hundred nature stories for enthusiastic readers across Canada and the United States. His first and only published fictional story was End of the Trail. After that, Mack stayed with non-fiction nature stories, books and scientific reports. His last publication was a biography of his friend, Allan Brooks: Artist Naturalist, published in 1979[3], Mack was then 96 years old.

In 1911, Mack travelled to Brooklyn, New York to attend the Pratt Institute[1]. Soon after arriving Mack met with fellow Canadian, Edward Cave, the new editor of Recreation magazine. Cave, a nature writer, who later became editor of Field and Stream, became Mack’s friend and publisher. Mack’s well-written and illustrated articles earned the respect of another important patron, George Oliver Shields, the former founder and editor of Recreation. Shields had earlier contributed to the success of Seton. Mack soon was selling articles to these and other outdoors periodicals. His photographs and sketches made his stories appealing to publishers and readers alike.

In late 1912 or early 1913, Outing magazine commissioned Mack to write a book on the birds of Manitoba. The result, Mack’s first book, Out with the Birds published in 1913[4], reveals Mack’s best qualities as a naturalist, writer, photographer and artist. New York Nation described Out with the Birds as an “uncommonly good book... Mr. Laing is evidently not one of those nature-students who finds it convenient to read their thoughts into the actions of animals they observe.”

In the years immediately preceding the First World War, Mack enjoyed considerable success writing about natural history for the major North American magazines. In contrast with the fictional nature stories of Seton, Mack’s realistic language and photographs helped to establish a new genre for nature stories.

From 1919 to 1924 Mack wrote a nature column for the Toronto Globe. His articles were reprinted in papers across Canada. During that time, Mack was widely recognized by naturalists and bird watchers. As well as those for the Globe, Mack wrote a weekly column for the Manitoba Free Press between 1921 and 1931 and intermittently for the Vancouver Province and the Toronto Star. The secret of Mack’s success as a writer was his ability to clothe the hard facts at the core of his stories with lively and intelligent prose.

In 1929, an article written by Laing entitled Oil - Black Death of Waterbirds - The Bird World Faces a New Menace - Oil - Polluted Waters - A Tragedy on the West Coast was published in Forest and Outdoor magazine.[5] In 1936, he wrote an article for Field and Stream about the horned owl.

An article by Laing, Four-Footed Trailside Friends of the Rockies, appeared in the Canadian Geographic Journal in April 1937.[1] Over his lifetime, Laing published over 700 articles, 22 of which are in peer-reviewed scientific publications of his day. His works were described as a “delight to read.”

Between 1927 and 1944, Mack was far too busy farming and museum collecting to write at his former pace. But in his later years, Mack wrote four more yet-to-be-published books including, Baybrook: Life’s Greatest Adventure, which describes his life pioneering his homestead in Comox.


As a boy, Mack was able to draw with skill and realism. He made pencil sketches for his friends. Later at the Winnipeg Collegiate he received two years of drawing instruction. In December 1910, Mack applied to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and the following year attended the Institute’s program of Fine and Applied Arts. Three years later, he graduated with an Art Diploma. Mack became an accomplished artist and photographer. He produced beautifully accurate and detailed images, especially of birds.


Mack visited the British Army Recruiting Mission in New York City in November 1917 where he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).[1] He then travelled to Toronto, Ontario for three weeks of basic training. At thirty four, Mack was too old to qualify as an RFC pilot.

In 1918 he was posted to the RFC School of Aerial Gunnery in Dallas, Texas. As an Instructor of Gunnery, Mack was given the opportunity to demonstrate his skills in weaponry and teaching. That year the School of Aerial Gunnery was moved to Camp Beamsville near Toronto and he was posted to the observation tower on the shore of Lake Ontario. Mack took advantage of his tower posting to observe, document and write about the bird life of Lake Ontario. While stationed at Beamsville, Mack was introduced to three prominent ornithologists: Hoyes Lloyd, who monitored migratory birds for the Dominion Parks Branch, James Henry Fleming, a prominent Canadian ornithologist, and Percy Taverner from the National Museum in Ottawa.

The First World War ended On November 11, 1918, and by December Mack’s military career ended. He then returned to Portland, Oregon, where his parents had retired, and continued writing.


In 1914 Mack had purchased an early model Harley Davidson motorcycle. With this purchase, Mack became the “motorcycle naturalist”. It gave him the freedom to visit remote areas for naturalist field work. That summer he embarked upon his first major motorcycle expedition. He rode from New York to Manitoba and published the story of that journey in Outing, May 1915.[1]

Mack soon replaced his first “Harley” for a 1915 eleven horsepower model with a top speed of 30 miles per hour, which he named, “Barking Betsy”. In July 1915, Mack set out from Brooklyn, New York to San Francisco, California, across 4,654 miles of the primitive roads and trails of rural America. In Fairmount, Nebraska, he was joined by his brother, Nick, riding Mack’s 1914 Harley. Mack kept a journal of the epic journey and later wrote a manuscript called The Transcontinentalist. That manuscript was edited by Trevor Marc Hughes and published in 2019 as Riding the Continent (Ronsdale Press)[6].

After a stop at the World’s Fair in San Francisco, Mack and Nick traveled north to Oregon to visit family. While visiting his sister in Portland, Oregon, thirty-two-year-old Mack met the love of his life, nineteen-year-old Ethel May Hart.

In the summer of 1924 Mack accepted a surprise offer to work as a naturalist on the HMCS Thiepval expedition to Japan via the North Pacific Ocean. The results of that expedition are documented by Mack in Birds Collected and Observed During the Cruise of the Thiepval in the North Pacific 1924.[7]

In July 1925, Mack joined a joint U.S.A./Canada expedition formed to conquer Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan, in the Yukon Territory.[1] The Canadian Department of Natural Resources commissioned Mack to film the expedition to the snowfield and then assess and collect the local flora and fauna. The remainder of the expedition to the summit was filmed by Allen Carpé|Allen Carpe. One of the plants that Mack discovered on the expedition was name Antennaria Langii in his honour. Upon his return from the Yukon Mack, jointly, with Percy Taverner, Chief Ornithologist of the National Museum in Ottawa, published Birds and Mammals of the Mt. Logan Expedition 1925.[8] Film shot by Mack and Allen Carpe was incorporated into the documentary film, The Conquest of Mount Logan.


In 1920, The Canadian Field Naturalist Journal published Mack’s article Lake-shore Bird Migration at Beamsville, Ontario was well received. This spurred Mack on and he began writing in earnest and sought work as a field naturalist.

Mack was invited to join the Smithsonian Institution’s 1919 expedition to Lake Athabasca in Alberta to examine the main breeding grounds of migratory North American waterfowl in support of the Canada-USA Migratory Birds Convention Treaty of 1917. The successful expedition was led by Francis Harper (biologist)|Francis Harper of Cornell University who selected Mack to assist with specimen collecting and cataloging.[1]

In the summer of 1921, Mack assisted Percy Taverner with field work in Saskatchewan. The following spring, as Assistant Ornithologist with the National Museum’s British Columbia field party, Mack was introduced by Taverner to Allan Brooks, artist-naturalist. Mack and Brooks became life-long friends.[1]

The naturalists spent the first half of the 1922 field season in the British Columbia Okanagan and the second half at Comox. On June 28, 1922, the museum party arrived in Comox by steamer from Vancouver. They were greeted by naturalist, Ronald Stewart who joined them at their forest camp at Widgeon Point, on Comox Bay, a mile east of the town.

During the depression years from 1931 to 1935 Mack’s work as a field naturalist with the National Museum was suspended. When funding resumed in 1936 Mack engaged in his most ambitious project, the four-year faunal reconnaissance of coastal British Columbia from 1936 to 1939. When war broke out again in 1939 Mack’s field work with the National Museum was again suspended. After the 1940 field season Mack retired from museum collecting.

Mack’s scientific legacy remains the most enduring of all of his accomplishments. He collected over 10,000 birds, mammals, and plants now housed in museums, universities and private collections all over the world, though primarily in the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Ottawa and the British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria. Mack also wrote some two dozen scientific articles for major ornithological periodicals. Mack’s most satisfying legacy to science was the two bird, two mammal and one plant species bearing his name for of his discovery. Finally, he taught an appreciation of natural history to his schoolchildren, to his Boy Scouts, to his thousands of readers, and to his National Museum student assistants.[1]


During the 1922 Comox expedition, Mack fell in love with the area and decided to make it his home. In October 1922, thirty-nine-year-old Mack bought a five acre lot on Brooklyn Creek a short distance from the town where he lived for the next sixty years. That fall and winter, Mack began building his house, a mail-order “Stanhope” Aladdin Ready-Cut kit. He spent his first winter in Comox clearing the land, removing enormous cedar and fir stumps using dynamite.

On January 19, 1927, Mack, 43, and Ethel, 31, were married at Jennings Lodge, Oregon and returned together to Comox. A keen gardener, Ethel was happy from the start at her new home “Baybrook” in Comox. She was interested in agriculture and influenced Mack to try his hand at nut farming. Mack and Ethel were at their happiest and most productive in the years after 1927 running their nut farm and market garden. In addition to his work on the orchard, in 1928 to 1930 Mack continued his fieldwork with the National Museum and writing.

In the summer of 1930, Mack became the first Park Naturalist at Jasper, Lake Louise and Banff National Parks.[1] That position allowed Mack to merge his penchant for teaching with his vast knowledge of the natural world. That year, Mack, acting as a mentor to students of the National Museum, was introduced to Ian McTaggart-Cowan, who later became a famous Canadian biologist and educator.

When the depression struck in 1931, Mack’s work with the National Museum and the Parks Branch ended. During the depression years, Mack and Ethel survived on the income from Mack’s writing, the nut farm, and the market garden. When Mack’s work with the National Museum resumed in 1936, Ethel was left on her own for up to six months at a time tending the farm. Ethel made valuable contributions to Mack’s bird collection. Mack called Ethel his “dear darling and dead shot.” By 1943 Mack and Ethel had planted nearly 900 walnut and filbert trees on their Comox farm. They also expanded their vegetable and fruit production.

Later Years

After a brief illness, on July 23, 1944, Ethel died of cancer at the age of 48. Mack wrote, “In 1944 the blow fell; I lost my help-mate. It was the solidest belt on the chin I had ever taken and I was badly staggered but refused to go down.” Following Ethel’s death, Mack found it difficult to maintain the nut farm. In 1949, Mack sold the farm to James and Elizabeth Stubbs.[1]

In 1950, Mack began to build his second home on the waterfront meadow site to the east of his former home, Baybrook, using the same blue prints. He named his new home, “Shakesides”, reflecting his use of hand-split cedar shakes for siding. Like Baybrook, Mack built his new home with his own hands. Many Canadian naturalists and ornithologists, including Ian McTaggart Cowan, made a pilgrimage to Shakesides to visit Mack.[1]


In 1973 Laing donated his property, including his home and five acres of valuable ocean-front, forested land, which included a salmon stream, in trust, to the Town of Comox. Consistent with his passion for teaching, in his last will and testament, Mack left all of his possessions, including his life savings and his valuable art collection, in trust, to Town of Comox, to enable his home, Shakesides, to serve as a small natural history museum.[5]

Laing has been nominated, a Canadian Person of National Historic Significance.

Laing died of a massive coronary on February 15, 1982, at the age of 99, after falling and requiring a hip operation. He is buried in the Courtenay Civic Cemetery in Courtenay, British Columbia.[1]

A biography, 'Hamilton Mack Laing – Hunter Naturalist', by Richard Somerset Mackie was published in 1985 (Sono Nis Press), using extensive records and photographs Laing kept during his lifetime.[1]

The British Columbia Archives in Victoria, has a voluminous collection of his correspondence, written articles, unpublished manuscripts and photographic plates and photos (1900-1982), including his extensive nature diaries.[9]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 Mackie, Richard Somerset. Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter Naturalist. Sono Nis Press, Victoria British Columbia, 1985
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Memorable Manitobans: Hamilton Mack Laing (1883-1982)". www.mhs.mb.ca. Retrieved 2023-01-09.
  3. Laing, Hamilton Mack. Allan Brooks: Artist Naturalist. British Columbia Museum Special Publication, 1979
  4. "Out With the Birds". www.goodreads.com. Retrieved 2023-01-09.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Mack Laing Heritage Society of the Comox Valley – Preserving the legacy of a great Canadian!". Retrieved 2023-01-09.
  6. Laing, Hamilton Mack. Riding the Continent. Editor: Trevor Marc-Hughes. Ronsdale Press, 2019
  7. Laing, Hamilton M.; Thiepval (Ship) (1925). Birds collected and observed during the cruise of the Thiepval in the North Pacific, l924. Canada. Victoria Memorial Museum. Museum bulletin no.40. Biological ser. no.9. Ottawa: F. A. Acland, printer.
  8. Laing, H.M., Anderson, R.M., Taverner P.A. Birds and Mammals of the Mount Logan Expedition, 1925. National Museum of Canada Annual Report for 1927
  9. Provincial Archives, Province of British Columbia. "Hamilton Mack Laing Fonds".

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