The Icarus Complex

Rudely intruding to save a bird of prey

Sep 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
ON THE GIRDERS beneath the Vincent Thomas Bridge, 17 miles south of Los Angeles, Brian Latta—a wildlife biologistwith the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group—creeps along a two-inch-wide steel lip. Soaring nearby, an angry peregrine falcon prepares to dive-bomb him as he approaches her nest of chicks.

Such are the occupational hazards of professional peregrine "salvage," an ongoing effort to protect the offspring of one of America's most threatened species. After more than 30 years on the brink of extinction, F. peregrinus anatum now seems to be not only surviving amidst humanity, but thriving—as growing numbers nest on man-made structures such as radio towers, bridges, and high-rise buildings. The falcon's comeback would be a happy ending, except for the fact that 30 to 50 percent of chicks in urban nests are swept to their deaths by erratic crosswinds as they make their first attempts at flight.

To prevent this, Latta transports the chicks from high-mortality nests to captive breeding facilities across the state, where adult falcons care for the adoptees until they are old enough to fledge. Later, he releases the young peregrines at natural nesting sites in cliffs along the coast.

No surprise: Latta, 39, has become an expert climber. He logs dozens of hours a year strapped into a harness, inching up ventilation shafts to capture chicks and then dodging small rockslides as he "translocates" them to the wild. "I still get this ball of nausea beforehand," he says. "But if you're not scared, you're just stupid."

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