People had followed falcons with light
aircraft before, plotting their migration departures. But no one had kept on
so far with a peregrine -- and never while being entirely possessed by the
idea of staying aloft with it, no matter that telemetry equipment had to be
swiped, that international borders had to be crossed without papers, and what authorities had to be eluded.
To go wherever our falcons' global journey might lead, I knew I was going to need an exceptional flyer -- whom I found in old
time aviator George P. Vose.
Vose's and my time with the falcons began on Texas' Gulf Coast, where
George's flying skills were immediately put to the test since our first
telemetry tracking took us through dense coastal fog, swerving between radio
beacon towers like a video game ship. For Vose, it was a sort of renewal -- a
chance to show, after all these years, what he could still do with his old
(Following his first job as a 20 year-old WW II flight instructor, Vose had graduated to membership in an elite fraternity of mechanic/pilots -- guys
who went into remote crash sites, rebuilt a downed plane, then flew it out
from a makeshift board runway.) Later the owner of a small flight school,
when I met him, George was living in an aluminum trailer out in the
West Texas desert next to the hand-built walls of an adobe house he'd been
working on for years.
When I asked him to leave his job flying for the US Army and come track a
peregrine, he thought I was the worst kind of half-baked bird nut.
Later, he told me he'd been right about that part, but was still glad he
hadn't passed up the chance to take off again on the kind of long distance
adventure aviation he'd made his name with.
For me, always a fearful flyer, every bit of Vose's derring-do was agony. In
all our months airborne with the hawks there were probably no more than two
or three days during which I didn't think, at some point, “This is it. We're
Other times, I'll admit, our problems were a riot. Arriving in Denver,
George and I discovered that with just one wheel able to brake, we could
only turn left. That meant we had to detour -- left turn following left
turn, a squad of passenger jets waiting -- as we made our circuitous way
around the airport's runways. Then there was the Rocky Mountain meadow we
barely got out of by banking, halfway through take-off, down a narrow slot
between its bordering Douglas firs; an ice storm in Montana; and the time
our carburetor fell off high above a Canadian forest.
Much later, on the falcons' southern migration, Vose and I inadvertently
landed our antenna-sprigged "spy" plane on a Mexican military base. Then, on
a hidden airstrip in Central America we found ourselves looking down the
barrel of drug smuggler's cocked .45.
The reason we went through all this goes back a long way. As a
child I was fascinated by hawks soaring overhead. But that interest faded
with visits to the caged birds of prey in our nearby zoo. Kept away from the
sky, they were sullen and miserable. Then, when I was twelve, my Dad shot a
hawk. Knocked it out of a tree at a hundred yards with an iron-sight
Remington 22. My Dad, brother and I scrambled out of our canoe, but when my
father stooped to pick up his prize, the hawk's eyes flamed back to life and
it scythed a pair of long black talons all the way through both sides of his hand. He
screamed and ripped out the claws but, even injured, the hawk was ready to
Nothing had ever stood up to my Dad. Not Blackie, his Angus bull; certainly
not my brother or me. That sort of fearlessness -- combined with falcons'
matchless aerial skills -- was what made them icons of reckless valor to
each of the many societies that, for thousands of years, revered them.
And that's what that red-tail did for me. Standing on that long-ago riverbank,
with all the determination of boyhood I resolved to keep its fierce golden
eyes flashing -- forever -- in my sight.
Years later, after I'd become Co-Director of the Raptor Preservation Fund,
with barns that sheltered dozens of hurt hawks, I'd sometimes still picture
that gunshot young hawk, but compared to it the birds of prey around me were
creatures of the sky whose injuries forever cut them off from their home.
That's why the chance to take wing and travel with peregrines meant so much.
So much that it cost me the love of a fine woman. My girlfriend, Jennifer,
though she had the good sense to know better, was nevertheless willing to go
up with George and me. Was willing to fly in our decrepit little plane
wherever our falcons led us... and was willing to accept going down together if it came
to that. But I did not let her. I left her behind, waiting, for so long that
when I finally lost the last peregrine's radio pulse and tried to come home,
I found that my own migration had taken me too far away, and Jen was gone.
What had kept Vose and me on the wing, though, was that, after our initial
enchantment at simply being able to follow a tundra falcon on its journey to
the Arctic, during the falcons' autumn migration months later, a more
specific objective had arisen. After crossing the Rio Grande into Latin
America, why did so few young peregrines return to the Texas Gulf's barrier
islands the following spring? The reason might simply be storms, bad
weather, or scarce prey. But if it was something artificial -- of human or
chemical origin -- then it was something that could be corrected.
What we found was miles-long chains of oil spillage ponds filled with
residual sludge by the Mexican petroleum industry. These big reservoirs were
enclosed by chemically saturated berms along whose shorelines wading birds
stopped to feed, picking up toxin-laced invertebrates whose poisons,
metabolically concentrated, were sure to pass up the food chain to the young
falcons who found weakened shorebirds easy prey on the tanks' barren verges.
That's a very different end from the natural death every wild being
inevitably faces. Caught in the jaws or talons of its customary predator,
every adult bird or mammal dies a hero, its final struggle fought on the
basis of its inborn defenses. Yet a creature brought down by the arrogance
of mankind's indifferent technology is denied that valiant end and, like
the coal miner's canary, becomes a beacon for what we are setting in store
for our own, far from impregnable, lives.
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