The Cry of the Falcon

It was spine-tingling when first I heard it, and the years since have only sharpened and intensified the response. No one, I think can be so dead as to hear it and be unmoved. For it is a cry like no other; uniquely hurled at the world and bespeaking power, freedom, wild and untamed abandon. It pierces a man’s soul with the incisiveness of a laser; his every sense is shattered awake and vibrates in envying response. And line sight of that falcon in full cry on the hunt, tapered wings slicing the air with precision defying that of the best engineers, calls forth in man emotions that never die.

But the falcon’s cry speaks not only of freedom arid zest. On more intimate occasions, the chirping exchanged between a bird and its mate evoke in us a sense of affection of tenderness and commitment. Some falcons mate for life, and the pair-bond is rooted deep.

But there is also in the falcon’s cry a note of more recent vintage, one not engrained into its very genes by the millennia of its rugged and free existence but by the hand of man. And it is a note not of freedom but of pathos, not of triumph but of despair. It speaks not just for falcons but for the sanctity of all that lives.

Since 1961 I have been involved in some 20 different wildlife surveys and research projects over all parts of Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands to the west to within a few hundred miles of Russia, and then eastward as far as Greenland. During all this work our prime interest was the peregrine falcon, which today is a rapidly vanishing species in North America.

As we left Anchorage with the 24-foot river boat in tow and the bed of the pickup truck full of camping gear and food, the heavy rain clouds common during Alaskan summers were gathering over the mountains. It was July 1974. I had just met my 14-year-old son Craig and one of my university colleagues, Dr. Robert Whitmore, at the airport, and now we were headed for the Yukon River to undertake another research project.

We would head down the mighty Yukon, beginning at the point where the Trans-Alaska pipeline crosses this wild and magnificent river. In 1970 and 1972 I had surveyed parts of this region by helicopter in order to gather information on the falcons prior to the pipeline construction. Other portions of the Yukon River had been explored, but this part of the river was virtually unknown as far as the status of falcons was concerned. We would now have a chance to complete a check of the region by boat.

The salmon had just started their run upriver from the sea; they would continue their journey another 800 miles or so before spawning and dying. The July days were normally calm and sunny while the nights were crisp and cool. It is a lonely but satisfying feeling to stand around a crackling fire on a northern midnight, when it is still light enough to read a newspaper, and listen to the distant loons uttering their frenzied and maniacal calls. Sometimes, however, we were forced to remain in our tents for most of the day while the blustering winds whistled up the river and across the gravel bars where we camped. At one of our camps we found a small creek unnamed on the geological survey map, and we called it Molly Creek after my colleague’s baby daughter.

As the next three weeks passed, we visited cliff after cliff where there was evidence that falcons had at one time nested. Yet what we saw tore at our emotions. Based on the nature of the habitat, our previous years of knowledge from other portions of the Yukon River in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, and scattered information from other reports, we judged that about a dozen pairs of falcons should have been nesting on this stretch of river. Almost surely there were that many a decade ago. Now just half that number were present, and of those only two pairs had young. Some pairs still occupied their breeding places in silent splendor—but they were not producing young. Some pairs produced eggs so fragile they broke before hatching; others were not even producing eggs.

One nest we knew about had been continuously occupied for several decades. However, as we landed the boat beneath the nesting cliff, a sudden tightness gripped me, for a strange quietness seemed to surround us. Only the lap of water on the shore, the whisper of a light breeze through the ragged spruce trees, and the occasional twitter of some small bird along the river’s beach could be heard. Fearful of what we might find, we raced up the hill, scrambling over the broken talus beneath the cliff, and climbed up onto the nesting ledge. Except for a few old feathers, it was empty and lifeless. As we sat overlooking the great river flowing noiselessly beneath us and the wide expanse of the forest beyond, the outlines of two falcons came into view. Their high call, usually evoking in us a sense of the wild and the free, now seemed to carry with it a feeling of mournfulness and melancholy. They were giving the distinctive and peculiar wailing call that one soon learns to associate with deserted nests. We watched now as the two birds drifted slowly off into the arctic summer’s twilight, and all was silent again. The gallant, vigorous, and noisy defense of the nesting cliff, typical of the peregrine as it makes swoop after swoop at the intruder, was not here. Cold stones alone remained along the ledge where once there had been birth and life, low wails where once there had been loud calls of affection and anger, and only ghostlike shadows glided off into the sunset.

But the arctic offers other more satisfying and rewarding experiences, not so full of sadness and uncertainty. Let me relate one. I could not tell what caused the rough-legged hawk, who shares the cliffs with peregrines, to make repeated swoops at the top of the brush-covered bluff above its nest. The nest was only about two feet below the bluff’s brink and contained four large fledglings nearly of age to leave the nest on their maiden flights. It was July 1968 and the stillness of the tundra was only interrupted by mosquitos humming in my ears. Suddenly, the reason for the hawk’s concern became evident as a wolverine emerged from the brush and tried to reach its paw down to one of the young hawks before being struck by the parent bird. It did not succeed, however. From a flashing dive the male parent hit the wolverine squarely in the middle of the back, nearly knocking it over the bluff. The battle was momentarily decided, and the wolverine retreated to search elsewhere for food. Few people see wild wolverines, let alone watch them in such a completely natural act; we were but 100 feet away.

The peculiar behavior patterns we had seen in the Yukon falcons were not restricted to that region. We saw similar problems over vast areas of Alaska, especially on the lonely and beautiful tundras between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. There we had witnessed the falcons go from a healthy to a “sick” population starting in the late 1960s. In 1972 we even watched one falcon sit silently on a ridge next to its nest during a summer snow squall. Its proper place was sheltering its young; but its abandoning them resulted in their slowly freezing to death.

The result of failure to produce young is reduction in numbers if not ultimate extinction of the species. For example, when in 1952 my colleague Dr. Tom Cade from Cornell University first traveled 180 miles of the Colville River in Alaska, he found about 36 pairs of falcons nesting along the river. They produced about 50 young. The numbers of adults stayed at about the same level until 1969, although fewer young were being produced. Then came a sudden drop both in numbers of adult pairs and of young, and in 1974 only 15 pairs remained to produce nine young.

Why? What was causing this unprecedented and strange decline? What was causing the neglectful parental behavior and nest failure? What was happening to this noble falcon in these remote regions far from man and his presence? Were we simply seeing a pattern that is now worldwide in scope? We know that at least over most of Europe and the eastern United States and Canada where this pattern is most evident that it has been shown to be a result of man’s deadly chemicals. Chemicals that at first helped man are slowly harming him and his environment.

The answer to what is happening to the falcons in the far-flung regions of Alaska apparently lies in South America where the birds spend the winter. While a missionary in Argentina in 1955, I was totally unaware that the type of falcon I frequently saw sitting on buildings in Buenos Aires in January was to become one of the world’s many endangered species, nor was I aware that I would become a witness to this drama. Banding studies have furnished the general details of their migratory patterns; more study is needed to document precisely where in South America they are acquiring their deadly loads of chemical poisons before it is too late—because extinction is forever.

During the past few years, a rather sizeable group of graduate students and professors at Brigham Young University has been involved in studies of this sensitive group of birds, the birds of prey. We hope to help solve the problems I have discussed and to learn how we might be better stewards of their future welfare. At several localities across the United States and Canada, efforts are being made to produce these falcons in captivity for future release to the wild. BYU is one of these places where a breeding effort is being made. Although our success is presently very limited, other breeding projects in the U.S. and Canada have shown encouraging results. Falcons are now being reintroduced at their historical nesting sites from which they were exterminated in the early 1960s by specific chemicals.

But why would man spend his time, talents, and money on this noneconomic resource? There is no profit to be made here! There is no dollar-and-cent value attached to this falcon. I have even heard some express the opinion that it is not worth worrying whether this species goes extinct, since it does not have anything of worth or value to man; it’s only an animal. Such opinions, however, run counter to the very grain of man’s knowledge, both secular and scriptural.

The scriptures tell us that at the end of the creative periods God saw all that had resulted and proclaimed it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). It is very consistent with our knowledge of creation to believe the reason it was very good and that it pleased God is because each organism has a role, a function or purpose, on earth. It is because each fills the measure of its creation that the earth functions as it does, that the presence of one group of plants or animals enables another group to exist, that the minerals and chemical elements cycle as they do, and even the mortal bodies of man obtain the oxygen and nutrients they need and thus survive. The Lord, in speaking of all the varied forms of life, said, “And the good things which come of the earth … were … made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (D&C 59:17–20).

Further making it clear that we are to help maintain the earth with all its diversity, we read: “I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine.

“And if the properties are mine, then ye are stewards; …

“[And] every man may give an account unto me of the stewardship which is appointed unto him.” (D&C 104:14, 56, 12.)

I wonder if we realize the tremendous responsibility we have to the other forms of life upon earth and to the continued existence of them all, if for no other reason than the Lord made them and they are very good. They are alive; they are part of the “handiwork” of nature. Henry David Thoreau seems to have grasped the meaning of stewardship. In his book Walden he relates:

“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellowmen to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold onto it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”

The Lord loaned us the earth and all therein. In a very real sense we are merely borrowing it. It is the apple of his eye, for it is through this earth and our mortality here that he can bring to pass our eternal life. Because we are here we have an interest in his enterprise. Are we going to return the earth in as good a shape as we received it? Or are we carelessly destroying it and the things therein, contaminating it for our own short-term material and personal gain?

Perhaps the nature of the stewardship changes from locality to locality. Perhaps our stewardship is simply caring, having a respect for life. A simple form of stewardship is expressed in the life-styles of two men I remember who used to live along the Yukon River. George McGregor, a prospector and trapper, was already an old man when I first met him. He is dead now, but for many years he lived alone in a log cabin he had built at the foot of a falcon crag. Every year the falcons came to nest on the rocks above his cabin. They were not disturbed by him, because he was a quiet man who blended serenely and unobtrusively into his surroundings and was a part of the land just as much as the falcons, the river, and the spruce tree. Once, George saw a female falcon swoop out of the air and strike a marauding raven dead in midair over the river in front of his cabin, and his old eyes used to brighten when he told about it. He had never read Walden, but I am sure he instinctively understood the meaning of stewardship.

In recent years another man built his cabin by a falcon cliff not far downriver from George’s crumbling home. He was a loud man, exploiting nature, cutting down trees with a noisy power saw, and keeping a pack of howling sled dogs chained up at the base of the cliff. He also operated a large, creaking fish-wheel right in front of the rocks where the river runs deep and the salmon swim up. No falcons nested on the cliffs after this man built his cabin, nor have they returned now that he is gone. It will take nature some years yet to repair the scar he left.

Are we making an effort to determine what we can do to honor our stewardship? The challenge seems to be to understand our kinship with the rest of the Lord’s creation, our obligations to “keep and dress” it, and to be especially sensitive to animals such as the still proud, but vanishing peregrine falcon. Let us lengthen our vision and horizons and allow the Lord to say of us one day, “Well done, my good and faithful servants.”

[photos] Photos by Clayton M. White