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 youve
helped bring the worlds 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 youre Glenn Stewart, you inspire thousands of schoolchildren
every year with the story of what a few dedicated people can
Its 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. Thats 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 Stewarts 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?
Stewarts 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.
Its a message that resonates with school groups. Colorful
thank-you notes spill out of folders in Stewarts office.
I didnt 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 isnt the only person to fall under the peregrines
spell. The birds have fascinated humans for centuries; images
of falcons were found engraved on King Tuts tomb. The
peregrine is also an important indicator species--its health
and well-being are indicative of how an ecosystem is doing,
and its 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 couldnt 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 bachelors degree in environmental studies and
became one of the groups first project leaders, building
a career doing what he loves.
Having released more than 1,000 peregrines over the years,
the PBRGs 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,
Todays 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 its
the kids we need to reach, because theyre the future decision
Four years ago, Stewart realized a longtime goal, hand raising
a captive-born peregrine chick to help with PBRGs 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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