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Brian Walton, 55; researcher helped rebuild population of endangered peregrine falcons

June 23, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Brian Walton, a scientific researcher who helped lead efforts to restore the once-endangered peregrine falcon to West Coast habitats, has died. He was 55.

Walton, the longtime coordinator of UC Santa Cruz's Predatory Bird Research Group, died June 15 at a Santa Cruz hospital of a stroke, the university announced.

A diabetic, he had received pancreas and kidney transplants in 1994 and was awaiting a second kidney transplant, said Ron Walton, his brother.

"For a lot of people who study or even just admire peregrine falcons, his name is synonymous with the birds," said the researcher's colleague Glenn Stewart. "A lot of us believe we just wouldn't have any here if it weren't for him."

Kimball L. Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said in an e-mail, "All those who work on the conservation of birds of prey will feel the loss greatly."

While a Redondo Beach high school student in 1970, Walton participated in California's first survey of the peregrine falcons, which spotted only two nesting pairs. The bird had already vanished east of the Mississippi River.

Use of the pesticide DDT in the mid-20th century had nearly wiped out the species by contaminating the food web, which led to thinner eggshells that broke in the nest before they could hatch. The federal government banned the pesticide in 1972.

When the founders of the research group hired Walton in 1976, "we all thought that peregrine falcons would go extinct while we watched," Stewart said.

Instead, Walton helped the group succeed by refining methods to incubate and hatch the fragile eggs. He also developed a "soft release" method that involved sending scientists into the wild for months to covertly help adult falcons succeed at parenthood by providing food and preventing predators from eating the babies.

After more than 1,000 releases in the wild, California's peregrine population has climbed to an estimated 250 pairs today, Stewart said. As of 2003, about 335 pairs had been documented in the East.

The falcons were taken off the endangered species list in 1999.

Sometimes the careful nurturing could be thoroughly urban in nature.

In 1984, Walton climbed to the top of the Union Bank building in downtown Los Angeles, slipped onto a ledge and snatched two eggs from a peregrine falcon nest. Two other eggs had already been discovered broken.

By placing dummy eggs in front of the angry mother, Walton confused her and twice reached under the bird to grab the real eggs.

After hatching them in his Santa Cruz laboratory, Walton returned the nestlings less than two weeks later.

"I think it is the only true endangered species that shows exactly what can be done," Walton told the San Jose Mercury News in 1995. "We figured out what was wrong, and we brought it back."

Brian James Walton was born in McKeesport, Pa., and grew up in Manhattan Beach, where he kept a menagerie of birds in the backyard.

His parents, James and Mary Ann Walton, managed projects for TRW.

After raising a sparrow hawk, Walton developed an interest in birds of prey.

He started visiting Morro Rock at Morro Bay in 1970 to observe what was then one of only two known nesting pairs of peregrines in the state, his brother said.

Walton earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. While working on his master's in the same field, he joined the UC Santa Cruz research group, and he received his degree from San Jose State in 1978.

Under Walton's leadership, the group was also involved in researching captive breeding and wildlife management of eagles, condors and other rare or endangered raptors.

For 31 years, Walton also raised the money to fund the program -- including to pay his own salary.

"He was a very successful transplant survivor," his brother said, "who had a fruitful and successful life."

For years, Walton coached youth baseball teams in Santa Cruz and at Santa Cruz High School after his son, Neil, enrolled there. Neil Walton plays in the minor leagues for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization.

In addition to his son and brother, Walton's survivors include his wife, Hollis Feurtado; daughter Eleanor Walton; father James; and three stepchildren, Peter, Fallon and Katie Feurtado.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests donating to charity through the Brian James Walton Memorial Fund, Bank of America, 849 Almar Ave., Suite C, Box 332, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

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