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On the Wing: To the Edge of the Earth with the Peregrine Falconby Alan Tennant
Author Q & A
A Conversation with Alan Tennant
Q: Okay I have to begin with the obvious: You risked your life (not to mention your relationship, reputation, and bank account) and broke countless laws to follow peregrines on their global journey (a task nobody had ever undertaken) in a plane you describe as looking “like a big plastic strawberry box.” Why?
A: People had followed peregrines with aircraft before, getting the basic direction of their migration departures, but no one had kept on so far with a falcon--and never with the unshakable goal of staying with it for as long as its global journey lasted. No matter what authorities had to be defied, whose telemetry equipment had to be swiped, which
international borders had to be crossed, legally or illegally, and what local police and military forces had to be evaded, I was determined to achieve that goal. To do that along with me there was only one man with the flying skills, guts and gumption--George P. Vose. His old Cessna's fragile, plexiglass-sided cockpit did indeed remind me of a big strawberry box.
Q: Was there ever a moment when you thought to yourself, “Okay this is it. I am not going to survive this trip.” Tell us about some of your more dangerous escapades and what went through your mind during those moments?
A: There were probably not more than a couple of days, in all the time Vose and I followed peregrines that, at some point I didn't think, “This is it. We're going down!” Those times started with the dense Gulf Coastal fog George and I had to fly through behind our first falcon, sometimes swerving between Texas' radio beacon towers like a ship in a video game. At other times, though, the plane's problems were hilarious. Arriving in Denver, we discovered that--with only one wheel able to brake--we could only turn left, which meant we had to detour, left turn following left turn, all over the airport's many runways, keeping a squad of passenger jets circling overhead. Then there was the Rocky Mountain meadow we barely got out of by banking, halfway through take-off, down a slot between its bordering Douglas firs. There was the ice storm in northern Montana and the time our single carburetor fell off over southern Canada. Plus my crash in a bush plane (not piloted by George) on the banks of an arctic river. It goes on from there--I don’t want to give too much away! --but let’s just say there was an episode that resulted in Vose and I looking down the barrel of a cocked .45 on a drug smugglers' hidden airstrip.
Mostly what I felt during all this was unmitigated terror, except for our last engine failure, when a distant mud spit offered an opportunity not to crash into the sea. Vose wouldn't try a landing there, and I was furious. As the suddenly silent plane fell, we had a huge fight until I realized that terminally crunching his old Cessna on that spit of mud would leave George, like one of the flightless hawks I'd spent my life caring for, forever without wings. It was his choice, and as his partner, it became mine as well, and with little airspace to spare we made it to the last offshore island of solid ground.
Q: How did you first become interested in falcons and what do you think has made them, through the ages, creatures of such reverence and fascination?
A: As a tiny child I was fascinated by hawks soaring overhead. That interest faded, however, with visits to the caged birds of prey in our nearby zoo who, kept away from the sky, were so clearly sullen and miserable. My interest did not rekindle for years--not until I realized the incandescence that lay within every raptor.
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 to get it and when my father stooped to pick it up, its eyes flared and it scythed three talons completely though my father's hand. He screamed and ripped away the claws, but the hawk was ready to fight again. Nothing had ever stood up to my Dad! Not even Blackie, his angus bull; certainly not my brother or me. That sort of fearlessness — along with their unmatched aerial ability — was what made birds of prey, and falcons in particular, a sort of ultimate icon to each of the many societies that revered them.
Years later, after I'd become Co-Director of the Raptor Preservation Fund, with a big house that sheltered a dozen hurt hawks, I still had that gunshot red-tail's flashing eyes in mind. But the birds of prey around me were hunting birds forever cut off from the sky. That’s why the chance to go aloft, no matter what the cost, and travel with the ultimate raptor, meant so much.
Q: A lifelong naturalist and birder (not to mention hurricane chaser) one can see how you would be drawn to this task. What do you think drew George Vose, your partner-in crime to the journey?
A: George Vose has been flying since his teens and was a 20-year old Air Corps combat instructor during the Second World War. After the war, he was one of he few guys who'd go into remote areas to rebuild crashed aircraft and fly them out on makeshift board runways. Also a stunt pilot and the former owner of his own flight school, when I met him George was living in a twelve foot-long aluminum trailer, far out in the West Texas desert, next to a box of hand built adobe walls that despite the fact that he'd been working on his house for ten years were only four feet high and crumbling (an archaeological expeditionhad taken them for a pueblo ruin). Nobody knew George's past. He still had the fire, though flying jobs don't come often to guy like that. Late sixties, bad knees, shaky hands, gin and tonic a good deal more often than every now and then.
When I asked him to join me I said, “We'll never get this chance again.” I knew he thought I was some half-baked bird nut, but he couldn’t resist a chance to once more take off on the sort of long distance adventure flying he'd made his name with.
Q: As a matter of background can you give us a summary of the peregrine population over the last several decades?
A: Before the Second World War's introduction of DDT for mosquito control, the worldwide peregrine population was probably not far below its historical high. But as DDT became universally employed as a pesticide during the 1940's and 50's, more and more insects became resistant to its effects, and, carrying formerly lethal doses of the chemical in their bodies, a lot of those bugs lived long enough to pass those toxins up the food chain to the songbirds that fed on them. Here, both DDT and its metabolic derivative, DDE, were concentrated in the insect-eating birds on which peregrines preyed. Among these falcons — long before an individually lethal dose was reached — first DDE, then dozens of other man-made environmental contaminants inhibited the transfer of calcium from the wing bones of breeding females to their forming eggshells, leaving them too thin to support the weight of their brooding parents and crushing the developing chicks within their shells.
By the 1960's, peregrines were extinct east of the Mississippi. A diminished population hung on the less heavily sprayed western mountains, but even the arctic peregrines — a separate subspecies known as Peregrinus tundrius — were beginning to show signs of eggshell thinning due to chemicals carried north from their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. After the US, in response, banned DDT, Cornell University's famous Peregrine Fund, under the direction of Tom J. Cade, began its innovative captive breeding and reintroduction program, and as a result both eastern and western peregrine populations have staged dramatic recoveries. The arctic tundrius, meanwhile, though still faced with local eggshell thinning, is now no longer a threatened race.
Q: How did it come to pass that both the University of Texas Cancer Center and the Army teamed up for The Peregrine Project?
A: How the Army and the Cancer Center got together on the Peregrine Project is known only to the top brass in each camp. Nevertheless, one of the Army's several roles was to pick up a large share of the program's considerable expenses — not only paying Vose's aircraft charter fee, but using big military-transport Chinook helicopters to ferry falcon trappers, hundreds of bait pigeons, a dozen or so all-terrain vehicles, and huge amounts of equipment, including a portable gasoline depot, back and forth to the offshore islands, as well as housing its highest ranking personnel in top floor condominiums in the resort town of South Padre Island. The leaders of each camp were, I think, fundamentally both avid falconers and falcon researchers who wanted to spend more than a month each spring and fall trapping migrating peregrines. Justifying the cost of the major expedition this entailed, however, meant convincing the Cancer Center of peregrines' value as environmental monitors. That is, creatures who, because of their position at the top of the avian food chain would — like canaries in the early coal mines — concentrate enough toxins in their bodies to warn of impending bio-hazards.
Where the Army was concerned, beyond its directors' interest in falcons, there were other, more enigmatic reasons for being on Padre. Nothing was ever discussed much, but most of the military researchers were part of the federal chemical warfare program and swapped stories about the animals-as-saboteurs conferences they'd attended. Often, they spoke of peregrines — once their international migration routes were clearly mapped — as both covert monitors of other nations' air space and mobile vectors for sensitive listening devices. I don't know if anything ever came of their ideas, and suspect that spy technology has by now bypassed falcon-borne monitoring devices, although current migrant peregrines sometimes carry the much larger and more complex, backpack style, satellite-received transmitters the original project's Army guys looked forward to obtaining as information-gathering devices.
Q: What did you hope to learn, on your travels, that would have practical applications to preserving the future of peregrines?
A: At first, the simple drama of following a migrating arctic falcon--accompanying it all the way to its unknown home on the polar tundra--was such a magical idea that I was entranced. Later, though, during the fall migration, what came up as a more particular goal was the mystery of why so few young peregrines show up on the barrier islands the following spring. I knew that George would be fueled up and ready to take off, and that if we could get behind any of the young peregrines I'd just gotten transmitters on we might be able to discover why so many of them failed to return to Padre. The reason might simply be storms, bad weather, scarce prey. But if it was something artificial--of human/chemical origin — then it was likely to be something that could be corrected. After our weeks spent following Amelia, Vose and I discovered that the greatest hazard our young birds faced might be the miles long chains of enormous, open oil tanks filled with petrochemical sludge by the Mexican petroleum industry. These vast shallow lakes had chemically saturated margins where tens of thousands of shorebirds stopped to feed, picking up toxin-laced invertebrates whose poisons they were sure to then pass on to the falcons who found sick and weakened individuals easy prey on the tanks' barren perimeters.
Q: You write, “It matters when technology obliterates not just the life but the heroism of other species.” What do you mean by that?
A: The death of almost every adult individual, of any species, in the jaws or talons of its natural predator is, in its essence, heroic. A struggle fought on the basis of the individual's natural defenses, however agonizingly its life is ultimately lost, is lost on the failure of the creatures' evolutionarily acquired defensive qualities. For example, a majority of the birds pursued by peregrines use their innate gifts of speed and evasiveness to simply out-fly the falcons. The ones that do not get away nevertheless make heroic efforts to escape, and die having spent their last remnant of strength — yet simultaneously feeding the life of their captor. A bird swept to its death by a mechanical contrivance, however, is killed by a device against which it has no innate defenses.
In On the Wing, this is the thousands of songbirds smashed by high speed vehicles rushing directly across their low level landing trajectories on the Texas shoreline — these are denied the chance for a natural, even heroic death and the nutrition that their bodies would normally have passed along to their predators end up rotting on the grills of the pickup trucks and SUVs speeding down the Gulf's coastal highways — land that the birds have reached only after a heroic flight across hundreds of miles of open ocean.
Q: One cannot talk about the power of flight without thinking that George is very much like Cherokee, Amelia, and all the others "who flew with the wind in their souls and the tactile power of slender wings immanent in their limbs.” What about flight made it so essential to George?
A: Flying, to George, was aviation before technology made it an exercise in electronics — a time when you flew, like our peregrines, with the feel of the wind in your wings and tail. Partly that was purely practical. Aviation was one of your choices as a young man, in Maine, during the thirties, and Vose had done it right. Chosen a reliable tool, a standard, single-engine light aircraft, and like someone learning to use a complex lathe or harvest combine or diesel fishing boat, he had made its technology his own. Made it, to him, a commonplace.
Prosaic as Vose tried to make that sound, his commitment to flight had a more romantic genesis. The first aircraft he ever saw was a bright yellow biplane that buzzed around his second grade classroom in Machias, Maine, one morning in 1929. Despite his teacher, George hung on to the windowsill and counted as the pilot did twenty-seven loops in a row. After that, it took five years of Depression era nickels and quarters to get the $5.50 fare he split with another kid — the two of them being light enough to qualify as a singlegrown-up--to go up from the hayfield landing strip where barnstorming flyers came through selling rides. Wedged into the front seat of an Eagle Rock double-winger, George knew he'd found his life's pursuit.
Q: You write that yours and George’s journey, like that of the peregrines, was "a testimony to the optimism of life itself." How do you feel your life has been different in the years that have passed since you took your last trip aboard old ‘469?
A: Since George and I flew with peregrines, life has been different. Not necessarily more optimistic, but certainly larger. Even on our first flight together, while his military employer recorded her data, for minutes after she'd told him to turn back, George flew on. I could see that it was hard for him to leave the falcon flickering along far below, now embarked on her lonely quest toward some unknown, almost inconceivably distant home. Then his Army boss looked up, and in irritation motioned for George to go ahead and turn. Reluctantly, he banked us slowly around, descending across the bay to Cameron County Airfield — and to what had suddenly become a far smaller world.
Q: Did you ever cross paths again with any of your peregrines?
A: Unfortunately, I never again crossed paths with any of our peregrines. In one case, though, I barely missed it. After Vose and I left Belize, Airport Manager Luis Alpuche, now with our left-behind scanner abuzz on his desk, could hardly help but have his
curiosity piqued by the potential passage of the falcons that we had told him might some day come within range of his receiver's control tower-mounted antenna. Weeks later, in the vicinity of the airport Alpuche began picking up transmitter signals possibly from Anukiat, maybe even long-vanished Delgada, since her frequency was also still in the receiver's search band. I caught the first flight for Belize. But before I arrived the signals had disappeared, and on numerous subsequent trips, though I found other peregrines, I never picked up one of our falcons' signal.
Q: What is George up to these days?
A: Finally, George Vose didn't go down with his plane. But he did return to Mexico, working for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. During the mid 90's he went back to monitor flocks of white-fronted geese that, radio tagged in the Arctic, migrate to a winter range around Chihuahua's 7,000-foot-high Laguna Bavicora. Vose was seventy when he started the goose project, and Fish and Wildlife thought he'd never stick it out at Bavicora for five whole winters. But he did, despite being snowed in for more than a week on a couple of occasions. Then George hooked up with a bear. A big, black male who climbed a tree next to the County Courthouse in Alpine, Texas. But that’s another story, which I tell in the epilogue to On the Wing.
Q: So we know that Robert Redford will be playing George in the film version of your book.. Who do you see as Alan Tennant?
A: Ben Stiller; Brad Pitt.
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Science and Mathematics » Nature Studies » Birds » Birdwatching