Letting go can be hard – especially when it’s something you love

(Above) Our final photo together – Northeast Iowa’s Pike’s Peak State Park, located on the Upper Mississippi River.  

by Lowell Washburn

McGregor, IA -- It was a brilliant spring day, and my wife Carol and I were admiring the view from atop the highest bluff at Clayton County’s Pike’s Peak State Park.  Five hundred feet below, the sprawling island studded expanse of the Upper Mississippi River provided one of Iowa’s most scenic backdrops.  In addition to being America’s continental drainpipe, the Mighty Mississip’ is also a vital corridor for millions of migrating birds.

But today’s priority went beyond the enjoyment of world class birding or viewing of incredible scenery.  Perched on my gloved fist, my trained peregrine falcon, Aurora, calmly waited in the darkness of her hood.  The spring migration was surging northward, and others of Aurora’s kind were moving up the Mississippi.  After spending the winter in South America, wild peregrines were currently enroute to the cliff ledge nest sites of their arctic breeding grounds.  Although Aurora was unaware of the fact, she was about to join that migration.  The fact that I had been planning this event for several months was not making its completion any less painful.

Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, our saga had actually begun in 1958 when, as a bug-eyed nine-year-old, I watched the original airing of Walt Disney’s “Rusty and the Falcon” – the fictional account of a boy who discovers an injured peregrine, nurses the falcon back to health, and then successfully introduces the bird to the ancient sport of falconry – the practice of using trained raptors to pursue wild game.  That single television episode was all it took.  I was hopelessly hooked.  Of all birds, the peregrine falcon had instantly become my favorite.  

From that moment on, I dreamed of what it would be like to pursue wild game in partnership with the planet’s fastest winged hunter.  But it appeared as if my dream would remain unfulfilled.  By the time I reached High School, peregrine falcons were facing a dark future.  A casualty of DDT pesticides, peregrine populations were going down in flames.  During a visit to Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History, I was told by staff scientists that the possibility of ever seeing a live peregrine was remote and that the species was likely facing extinction.  The preserved study skins displayed in a glass case were as close as I could hope to come.

Fortunately, those dire predictions were wrong.  Due to the efforts of an alarmed public, the use of DDT was banned in 1972.  Equally significant was the fact that a handful of falconers were attempting to produce offspring from peregrines taken from the wild years earlier.  Although there were legions of naysayers, the idea of restoring vanished populations via the release of captive bred youngsters seemed worth an attempt.

During the 1990s, I enjoyed the unfathomable priviledge of spending five consecutive years coordinating and conducting peregrine releases at both urban and 

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