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Glenn Stewart with his falcon, Sophie. Photo: Jim MacKenzie

October 11, 2004

Glenn Stewart gets the word out about falcons

By Jennifer McNulty

Talk about a tough act to follow. What do you do after you’ve helped bring the world’s fastest bird back from the brink of extinction and reintroduced the bald eagle to Big Sur?

Glenn Stewart received this thank-you after visiting a local school.

If you’re Glenn Stewart, you inspire thousands of schoolchildren every year with the story of what a few dedicated people can accomplish.

“It’s a great story I get to tell, and I never get tired of talking about the peregrine falcon,” said Stewart, program director with the UCSC Predatory Bird Research Group (PBRG). “I can look out across a classroom and see the lights go on for these kids. That’s my goal, to create some little bit of awareness in them about nature.”

It helps that Stewart, an avid falconer who has loved birds of prey since he first read My Side of the Mountain as a fifth grader, is almost always accompanied by his four-year-old tame peregrine, Sophie. Perched on Stewart’s gloved hand, the majestic bird mesmerizes crowds, who fall silent and gaze in wonder as Stewart describes the devastation caused by the widespread use of the pesticide DDT.

Developed in the 1940s to kill disease-carrying mosquitos, DDT thinned peregrine eggshells and prevented chicks from hatching. By 1970, peregrines were extinct east of the Mississippi River, and only two pairs were known to be reproducing in California. But the story has a happy ending, and Stewart tells tales of mountain climbers scaling sheer cliffs to reach peregrine nests, replacing live eggs with dummies and incubating the fragile eggs in the lab. After the chicks hatched under the watchful eyes of dedicated biologists, field staff returned them to their cliffside dwellings. And he tells the whole truth about DDT.

“DDT was a wonderful chemical. It stopped malaria and increased the production of food crops,” said Stewart. “Who knew it was a persistent pesticide that would be retained in the fatty tissues? Who knew it would thin the eggshells of top-of-the-food-chain predators? Who knew?”

Stewart’s hands-on experience makes him an effective ambassador for the PBRG. “I get a kick out of showing children that not all biologists are guys in white coats,” Stewart admitted with a grin. “Some of us get to handle eagles and falcons, and we can make a difference in the world.”

It’s a message that resonates with school groups. Colorful thank-you notes spill out of folders in Stewart’s office. “I didn’t know anything about peregrine falcons,” wrote a fourth grader named Jacob. “Now they are my most favorite bird in the world. How old do you have to be to do your job?” Fifth-grader Lindsay said she wants to study biology, and Jocelyn wrote that the slide-show images “just stick inside my head.”

Jocelyn isn’t the only person to fall under the peregrine’s spell. The birds have fascinated humans for centuries; images of falcons were found engraved on King Tut’s tomb. The peregrine is also an important indicator species--its health and well-being are indicative of how an ecosystem is doing, and it’s a powerful icon for nature and conservation.

Stewart joined the group as a volunteer in 1975 after he read about its formation in the UCSC alumni magazine. Stewart had graduated with a degree in politics in 1973, but he knew when he saw that article that he had to return to UCSC and get involved with the peregrine falcon captive breeding program.

Despite warnings that it couldn’t be done, UCSC professor Kenneth Norris and local veterinarian James Roush established a program to pioneer the captive breeding of peregrine falcons. They recruited founding coordinator Brian Walton to run the program, and his success is legendary.

Today, thanks in large part to the work of the PBRG, more than 300 peregrine pairs are in California, and the bird was removed from the federal endangered-species list in 1999. Stewart earned a second bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and became one of the group’s first project leaders, building a career doing what he loves.

Having released more than 1,000 peregrines over the years, the PBRG’s focus has shifted from recovery to research and mitigation. Staff members monitor peregrines, bald eagles, golden eagles, and other birds of prey, using radio and satellite telemetry to track migrations and their hands-on expertise to relocate birds when necessary. Clients include California State Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Energy Commission, and the California Department of Transportation. “About 3,500 birds have passed through our hands,” said Stewart.

Today’s interventions include relocating peregrines that nest on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, removing non-native golden eagles from the Channel Islands, and discovering a 2,000-mile bald eagle migration route from the Northwest Territories of Canada to southern California.

“We followed the eagles in real time and posted their progress online so schoolchildren and others could track their progress,” said Stewart.“That was pretty dramatic.”

Over the years, Stewart has taken a couple of breaks from the PBRG, doing habitat restoration with the Bureau of Land Management and directing the Idaho Conservation League for five years. He also did a stint of bald eagle work in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

“I saw the devastation in Alaska. In Idaho, I was in the middle of wars between people who were interested in the environment and people who wanted to take the tops off mountains to mine them,” said the softspoken Stewart. “I realized it’s the kids we need to reach, because they’re the future decision makers.”

Four years ago, Stewart realized a longtime goal, hand raising a captive-born peregrine chick to help with PBRG’s increasing emphasis on outreach and education. A majestic bird, Sophie is a hit wherever she goes, working her magic on nearly 30,000 people so far.

With only two predators--golden eagles and the great horned owl--peregrines seem likely to continue rebuilding their population, thanks to a handful of dedicated visionaries. The return of the peregrine is an inspiring feat. And like he said, Stewart never tires of telling the story.

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