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Tale of Birds of Prey and Their Predators : Peregrine Falcons Endangered, and Some Say Highly Marketable

December 22, 1990|RICH ROBERTS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Fish and Wildlife Service seems to be in a hurry to look at several species to down-list," he said.

The Peregrine Fund was started in 1970 by Dr. Tom Cade when he was teaching ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The project to restore the sub-species Falco peregrinus was later expanded to facilities at Ft. Collins, Colo., and Santa Cruz, where Brian Walton heads the Predatory Bird Research Group.

Seven years ago, the Ft. Collins facility moved into permanent headquarters at Boise as the World Center for Birds of Prey. More than 3,000 of the birds have been bred in captivity and released in cities or in the wild of half the states.

"Of the total number of birds we have released, in cities or on cliffs or towers, about 83% have made it to independence," says Bill Burnham, president of the Peregrine Fund and director of the center.

The level of success has been about the same, city or country. To peregrines, a skyscraper is just a man-made cliff, the street below a canyon, and if there is a plentiful food supply of pigeons and there are no great horned owls or golden eagles--peregrines' natural predators--so much the better.

DDT and its residue, metabolite DDE, that experts say killed birds outright or caused eggshells so thin they would shatter in nests, have long been banished in the United States. The birds are reproducing in the wild again. Some say the crisis is passing.

And some falconers claim there never was a crisis.

ARABS AND ADVERSARIES

McPartlin was the kingpin of the Fish and Wildlife Service's "Operation Falcon" sting that climaxed in 1984.

The sweep led to 68 convictions in the United States, most on misdemeanor charges, and resulted in three years of jail time, $501,071 in fines, 1,615 hours of community service and 78 1/2 years probation. Seven other indictments are pending for fugitives who fled the country. The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia paid its fine with a letter of credit for $150,000 to the U.S. Department of Justice.

McPartlin said 35 NAFA members were convicted. Williston Shor of Mill Valley, Calif., editor of Hawk Chalk, the North American Falconers Assn.'s newsletter, said there were 27 convictions of NAFA members "that I might call serious . . . (and) more than 20 . . . were expelled from NAFA and told that if they were good boys they could reapply for membership after either a year or expiration of their probation, whichever came last."

Feelings toward McPartlin were so bitter--and remain so--that federal agents issued him a bulletproof vest and guarded his house, where the Fish and Wildlife Service kept 106 confiscated falcons for several months.

McPartlin says he never wore the bulletproof vest, but he thinks the 1985 triple murder of a family named McKay in a house near his might have been meant for him. Authorities say it was simply a burglarly gone bad.

Frank Beebe of Vancouver, Canada, has been called "the father of falconry" on the continent. He helped to form NAFA many years ago--then was drummed out of it when Fish and Wildlife Service agents arrested him for robbing raptor nests and trying to smuggle birds across the border into the United States.

Beebe called the charges "totally false" and blamed Cade and colleague Jim Weaver, who managed the Cornell program, for setting him up. Beebe later wrote a booklet, "The Myth of the Vanishing Peregrine" and still claims that Cade and Weaver created the peregrine crisis for their own gain.

"It was a fraud," Beebe repeated recently. "Peregrines are not now, were not then and never were endangered. . . . The endangered listing made peregrines million-dollar birds."

The case against DDT, he said, was supported by comparing normal eggshells to the thickness of old eggs in museums and other collections, which he said had to be thicker than normal to survive the original removal of their contents.

Lloyd Kiff disagrees. He is head of the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology in Los Angeles and has the world's largest collection of birds' eggs--about 800,000, including hundreds of peregrine eggs.

"There are no thin-shelled eggs from before (the introduction of DDT in) 1947," Kiff said. "(Saying there was no crisis is) a ridiculous assertion."

Kiff called the Peregrine Fund people "the heroes of our time."

The Peregrine Fund receives $345,000 of its annual budget of $1.5 million from the Fish and Wildlife Service. One FWS source said that for all the good it does for endangered species, its money would be better spent elsewhere, but that U.S. Senator James McClure (R-Ida.) keeps it coming to Boise.

Oil-rich Arabs, who have received help from Peregrine Fund personnel in setting up their own breeding operations, also have contributed, along with several state fish and wildlife departments, including California's. The rest of the funding comes from many private individuals and corporations.

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