John Le Jeune and his daughter Monica Cromarty in their family aviary in Agassiz. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

Agassiz man a pioneer in falcon breeding

John Lejeune is now retired, but his legacy lives on through his Agassiz breeding centre

Eighty-five-year-old John Lejeune isn’t far from family on his Agassiz farm. Next door on McCallum Road, his daughter Monica Cromarty lives on the property Lejeune himself had lived on for many years.

On her land is also something near to Lejeune’s heart: the falcon breeding centre he has worked to establish since the late 1960s.

Lejeune took the Observer on a tour of the falconry, which currently has 66 birds. He sold the business to Cromarty only last year, finally retiring after nearly 50 years of bird breeding.

“My daughter has a nice feeling for the birds, you know,” he said.

Inside the falcon farm, flight pens are closed off with nets keeping the birds from flying out of the enclosures. Breeding pairs of peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons and hybrids — many of whom have been Lejeune birds for generations — are roosting in their rooms.

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There won’t be any babies on the property until spring, and in 1972, when Lejeune was first starting out, he wasn’t sure there would be any babies at all.

At that time, Lejeune and his family were living in Hope. A few years earlier, he had come home from Quebec with five pairs of falcons and an idea to get out of the forestry industry and start a public bird park.

Peregrine Park was intended to be full of birds the public could come in to see: ducks, geese, eagles and of course the falcons. It was based off a sanctuary in Lejeune’s home country of Germany, and was a perfect fit for his love of birds.

“That’s what I wanted to make my living at,” he said. “But in 14 days, it was all over. Bingo.”

The department of highways expropriated Lejeune’s property, and bird park, in 1972 for the soon-to-be constructed Coquihalla Highway. The birds moved into the remainder of his backyard, and Peregrine Park was closed.

“I got rid of my ducks, my eagles and vultures,” he said. “But I tried to keep my falcons.”

On July 12, 1972, one of the falcons who had been living at Lejeune’s home since the park closure did something remarkable.

“It suddenly became the first of its kind to lay eggs” in captivity, Lejeune remembered.

“That was a disaster. The eggs were all infertile.”

Again in 1973, the peregrine falcon laid a clutch of eggs. Again, they were all infertile. She laid another clutch that year; also infertile. In 1974, when her fourth clutch was found to be infertile, Lejeune gave up.

“I said, ‘It can’t be done.’”

A male and female falcon in their coop at the Le Jeune breeding facility in Agassiz. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

The next time she laid a clutch of eggs, Lejeune didn’t bother checking if they were fertile or not.

“One day, I come in feeding them, and holy mackerel. She came off the nest and there were two babies,” Lejeune said. “I jumped so high, I never hit the floor again. It was just unreal.”

As far as he knew, Lejeune was the first person to ever breed peregrine falcons in captivity. And he was prepared to make a business out of it.

In Hope, Lejeune built a falcon breeding centre on his property. He drove to Los Angeles to buy an incubator for the eggs. And the next year, he managed to raise eight young falcons from egg to infancy.

Of course, it wasn’t easy.

“I lost dozens of them,” Lejeune said about the birds. Peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons and prairie falcons are all susceptible to aspergillosis and coxiellosis — a fungus and bacteria, respectively, that can wreck havoc on falcon populations.

SEE ALSO: Three billion fewer birds in North America than in 1970, study finds

His location in Hope didn’t help much either. Positioned against the mountain, Lejeune’s property didn’t get much sunshine, which can help reduce the rate of infection for birds.

So, in the late ’70s, Lejeune moved to his place in Agassiz, where his birds would get sun from early morning until late at night.

“That made a difference,” he said.

By the early 1980s, Lejeuene had established enough of a breeding population that he was able to start selling his birds on a larger scale — a task that was fraught with political complications, as their endangered status made many question whether Lejeune was secretly taking them from the wild for profit.

He managed to convince the authorities, began putting seamless leg bands on his birds to prove they were raised domestically, and started to sell the chicks.

Many were sold to the Canadian Wildlife Service, some for as much as $10,000. And some eventually found their way overseas.

“What people don’t know really is, in the Middle East … falconry is a big, big sport,” Lejeune said.

“They practiced falconry for thousands of years. And there are guys that at 10 times richer than Jimmy Pattison, and they have 100, 200 falcons.

“I heard of that, and I said to myself, ‘How the hell can I get in contact with one of those,’” he continued. “So I went to the library, looked a book up on the Arabs, and wrote a little letter.”

John Le Jeune, opening the door to the fly run, used to let young falcons stretch their wings. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

Dear sir, the letter read. I have some nice falcons. I try to breed them, and I’d like to have a partner in this procedure. Would you be interested in it? I hereby send you some pictures of my birds.

The response, Lejeune said, was immediate. His phone rang off the hook with long distance calls, and he even received plane tickets to visit people like the ruler of Qatar with some of his birds.

It took a few tries before Lejeune was able to find a happy compromise with his new foreign partners.

“You can’t eat your seed potatoes if you want to grow potatoes,” he explained. “I want to breed them, that’s all. The young ones, (they) could have, not the old birds.”

By 2007, Lejeune’s falcons were well-known both in Canada and abroad. They were training for falconry in places like the United Arab Emirates and working for the Canadian Wildlife Service in Canada as well.

Lorna Brownlee, a scientific advisor for Environment Canada once sent Lejeune an email.

“What I have discovered as I have been learning about falcons in Canada is just about everyone in the country either has a Lejeune bird or has had one in the past,” she wrote. “Everyone tells me how knowledgeable and passionate you are about your falcons.”

Lejeune has a paper copy of the email in his file on falcons, which includes photos of famous purchasers of his birds, and he showcases the email on the falcon farm’s website.

“Nobody can give me better advertising than that,” Lejeune said. “I saved that ever since.”

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Now, Lejeune has sold approximately 2,000 falcons, with the majority going to 16 different countries around the world.

Business isn’t as good as it once was — the Middle Eastern countries that once made up a large portion of his client base are now breeding their own domestic falcons — and Lejeune is facing some roadblocks in getting the nearly 95 dead falcons that have been sitting in his deep freeze to a taxidermist.

(The B.C. government has a $65 permit fee to allow people to take a dead raptor for personal display, as it transfers ownership from the provincial government to the individual. Although Lejeune raised his falcons from birth to death, the $65 fee still applies.)

But, the falcon business continues on.

Cromarty and Lejeune continued the Observer’s tour of the falcon breeding centre, and open the door to the pen of a particularly noisy female.

“She’s a little bit nastier when she has babies,” Cromarty said by way of explanation. “She’ll come after you. This way she just talks to you.”

“They’re all individual,” she continued, just like the industry Lejeune helped create.

“I almost feel like writing a book about it,” he said. “There is not many people that have knowledge of it.”

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