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On a chilly spring morning in 1978, Joe Alston settled behind his spotting scope and peered at Haystack Rock. He had come to Dinosaur National Monument as a temporary wildlife biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Through March and early April, he had seen no peregrines and his work had been uneventful. On 8 April that was to change.
On that day, Joe's wife, Judy, accompanied him to the field. Much of the spectacular six-hundred-foot cliff was hidden from their position on the top. They moved a few tens of yards to the side for a better look. A scattering of piñon pines and junipers still blocked the view. Only the very edge of the precipice provided a panorama of the gorge of the Yampa River, on its way to the Colorado in the blue haze below.
Time passed slowly in the cold wind. They had seen a battered blue pickup on the two-track road to the cliff, and now wondered who else had ventured to such a lonely place. Tourists seemed unlikely, given the remoteness of the site and the early season. They decided to call it a day, and on the way out found the pickup gone. Alston noticed what appeared to be trash at the cliff edge near where the truck had been parked. Expecting a case of illegal dumping, he found instead a gruesome scene.
On top were rags, some wire, and a gas can. Below on a ledge a few scores of yards from the top were a tire, burned brush, and the weathered body of a woman in a plaid shirt. Alston hurried for help and soon returned with a deputy sheriff. After confirming there had indeed been a crime, the deputy and Alston scouted the area and found the pickup. It was abandoned. Armed with the deputy's rifle, he went the way of the suspect and found a man lying calmly under a piñon, smoking a cigarette. Alston, untrained in lawman things, went up to the poor man and said, "Excuse me, may I talk with you." It turned out the man was armed, but his gun was broken. Before long the deputy returned and the villain was taken away. Four months later the remains of a second woman were found at the bottom of the cliff.
How bad can luck be? Little did the murderer know, returning to burn the body that had failed to fall to the bottom of the cliff a few months before, that Haystack Rock was one of only a few places in temperate North America where peregrines still nested. The murderer had chosen poorly. He dumped the remains of his victims over one of the most carefully watched cliffs in North America. For all his effort he ended up in Wyoming Prison. Alston eventually became superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park.
Alston's experience is one of the true stories that make up this collection of tales of the peregrine falcon in the twentieth century. Peregrines have a history of a few thousand years on the gloves of falconers. These falcons became highly celebrated as hunters. Based on falconry alone, this creature might have remained obscure to the public in general. However, in the last half of the previous century the big blue falcon became almost a household word, a flagship of conservation, and a species most people knew was somehow very important. This notoriety grew because the falcon had suffered a widespread catastrophic population collapse, largely owing to the unanticipated toxic side effects of persistent chlorinated insecticides. The peregrine became a metaphor that undermined widely held assumptions about the invulnerability of the natural world.
My purpose is not to dwell on what has already been told by other writers. Instead, these accounts, often based on my own experiences, are intended to provide a kind of binocular view of the special people, the peculiar events, and the remarkable response of the peregrine that have driven its phenomenal history in the last eight decades. Here and there I have also sought to explain the more special biological attributes of peregrines.
There is a vast popular and scientific literature dealing with this bird, which now is surely one of the best-studied wild animals on the planet. One of the main goals of this book is simply to explain why this wild bird deserves its popularity. Excellent sources of further information on the peregrines include a pair of conference reports, both with the main title of Peregrine Falcon Populations. The first was edited by Joe Hickey and published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1969. The second was edited by Tom Cade and others and was published by the Peregrine Fund, Boise, in 1988. Derek Ratcliffe's The Peregrine Falcon, published in 1993 (2nd edition) by Academic Press in San Diego, provides deep insight regarding the falcon in Britain. In 2002, a very comprehensive summary of the bird by Clayton White and others appeared in the Birds of North America series (No. 660) produced by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Academy of Natural Sciences. In late 2003 Return of the Peregrine, a wonderful anthology written by people involved in the rescue effort, was published by the Peregrine Fund, Boise.
Thousands of people came to save the peregrine from extinction. They were business people, students, biologists, and bureaucrats, and they were from both sides of the Atlantic. They cooperated in friendship and common resolve on an unprecedented scale. Among them were many falconers, the varied men and women who held the bird on the glove. Whoever they were, those who came to help were deeply changed by the big blue bird with "dispassionate brown eyes."
The cost of recovery easily exceeded $50 million, and if all indirect accounting were done, the figure might well approach twice that amount. Taxpayers paid only part of the bill. Private individuals and foundations donated millions. Motives were as varied as the people, but their goals were the same: rescue the peregrine.
In 1939, Paul Mueller, a Swiss chemist, synthesized a new kind of molecule, DDT. Chemically, this substance was simply a couple of rings of carbon atoms. Chlorine atoms were used to replace a few outlying hydrogen atoms. The entirely new substance had several properties including extreme durability and solubility in fat, which taken together should have raised red flags. But at the time, its promise as an insecticide was compelling. DDT wrecked the way nerves work in insects.
DDT was used by the Allies to delouse people in World War II because it effectively killed the parasites but did not harm humans. The chemical was soon put to more noble uses, killing insect pests in the countryside and in homes and businesses. Mueller was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948 for his work at the time the peregrine began its global decline. From 1947 onward, in the two decades that followed, thousands of tons of DDT were dumped on forests, marshes, and crops, first in Eurasia and North America, and later nearly everywhere else.
Then the strangest thing happened. The "wonder insecticide," which was almost indestructible, unexpectedly attached itself to fat molecules in small animals such as insects that became food for larger animals. The chemical accumulated in each larger animal and was passed on when that animal was eaten in turn. DDT rode the successive levels of animals up the food chain. Birds of prey high up in the food chain loaded up. Once in the top birds (especially those that ate fish or other birds), DDT, mainly changed to DDE, interfered with the gland that forms shells on eggs. Many raptors were in trouble. Poor shells meant broken shells, broken shells meant less hatching, less hatching resulted in fewer young, and fewer young meant fewer new adults to replace older adults that were lost in ordinary ways. Peregrines took the hit, and they took it hard.
The falcon disappeared from major parts of North America and Europe by the 1960s. Other kinds of raptors were affected, but usually less severely. Peregrines, and a few other birds of prey including bald eagles, tended to feed mainly on prey high in the food chain. The stage was set for falcon rescue. This book is partly about that endeavor.
Stories of the peregrine must also include its legacy in twentieth-century falconry. After all, falconers were among those who knew the bird best. They knew where it could be found, when and where it disappeared, and how it should be handled in captivity. They understood best the potential for managing eggs or young in the eyrie to ultimately increase the number of young fledged. They imagined what might be required to breed captives in a loft. They were closest to understanding, from the outset, how the species could be put back into its world. Falconers provided much of the energy that drove the recovery efforts. As a falconer and biologist, I cannot resist revealing a bit of my part in what happened.
What about the name blue meanie? So far as anyone knows, the name was first given to the peregrine by my friend Grainger Hunt, who knew of the villains in Yellow Submarine. Birds of prey, often called raptors, include mainly hawks, eagles, owls, vultures, and falcons. Some owls, some hawks and eagles, and most kinds of falcons are strongly aggressive by nature. The falcons are wonderfully alert birds that win food by boldly chasing down other birds in the open. Often prey escape, but some meet an untimely end.
Some raptors attack large intruders—including people—at their nests, the better to protect their young. Adult peregrines, gray-blue on the topside, are powerful predators and very defensive at their cliff-side nests, called eyries. From the view of prey or intruder, peregrines are very nasty. They are, in fact, meanies—big blue meanies.
The story of the peregrine falcon is a story of searches. Only a few months ago, at a hearing on peregrines held by the Colorado Wildlife Commission, a woman bird-watcher from a local Audubon chapter testified, hand on her heart, that she had watched birds for years and had seen but one peregrine. She concluded from this that they are very rare. Of course, peregrines are not as common as crows or robins, but they are no longer rare. To see a peregrine, one must set out to the most likely haunts. The quest often leads to big country and open sky. And now in many cities, you must search among skyscrapers and tall bridges. Peregrines love high places and because of this are often beyond easy range of human vision.
In another sense, what people did on behalf of this stricken species a few decades back were also searches. These were not so much scientific studies to learn the details of falcon biology as massive crash inquiries into the cause of the population sickness on two continents, and trial-and-error discoveries of ways to reverse the decline and to return the bird to places from which it had vanished. The people won in their searches. The great renewal of this bird, set in motion over thirty-five years ago, continues. The blue meanies are back.