As his truck bounces along rural rangeland in southern Santa Fe County, Tom Smylie points to raptors all around—first a Swanson’s Hawk on a fence post, then a kestrel floating around a tree. All the while, Maverick sits quietly under the camper shell, his giant eyes shielded from the passing world by a tiny leather hood.
The year-old peregrine falcon is soon climbing so high into the sky that Smylie can no longer make out the dark speck against the azure.
But Maverick can still see him. The man releases a snow-white pigeon from a canvas bag at his hip and the falcon zips into view, darting downward toward the quarry. It’s the third time he’s tried this morning, and this time, Maverick’s swoop finds its target. The two birds tumble with gravity and along the way he earns breakfast—crouching then in the tall grass and hastily sending pale feathers into the breeze.
Peregrines nearly disappeared from the United States before the turn of the last century. But Smylie sees them every day. He’ll turn 85 next month, and he remains an avid falconer who breeds, raises and trains raptors near Edgewood; conducts educational flight shows at the nearby Wildlife West Nature Park; and is widely known as a defender of the bird and the sport.
And he is among the last keepers of a great story about New Mexico’s role in bringing wild peregrines back from the brink of extinction.
Smylie first flew captive falcons in 1958, and just four years later Rachel Carson published her jaw-dropping book, Silent Spring, which made the case for how the pesticide DDT and its breakdown products were widely damaging the natural world. For peregrines, bioaccumulation led to eggshell thinning: No viable eggs equal no baby hawks.
Over the next decade, peregrines all but disappeared east of the Mississippi. In the West, however, less agriculture and more wide open spaces meant some remained. In the late ‘60s, Smylie knew where they were and how to get them. So he did.
The downy raptor chicks, called eyasses, that he carefully took home from cliff nesting areas were beginning to breed by 1970—the same year that the once-ubiquitous animal joined the endangered species list. In the meantime two other New Mexicans—the late Frank Bond, who would go on to be a state legislator and lawyer, and Jim Weaver, who lives today in the eastern part of the state—were working with Tom Cade of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York to start The Peregrine Fund with others.
A current member of the nonprofit fund’s board, Weaver tells SFR the falcons Smylie collected were a valuable part of the small breeding stock and produced as many as 100 offspring in the captive program’s first generation. The US government banned DDT and over nearly 30 years, falconers and scientists then released more than 6,000 peregrines back into the wild. In 1999, the bird was removed from the endangered species list because of sufficient recovery.
Smylie, a retiree from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has had a storied work and volunteer career that’s included reintroducing birds in Wyoming and Montana; trapping and banding falcons for 12 consecutive autumns on the Dry Tortugas; and performing raptor shows at the Albuquerque BioPark for eight years. He recently donated his letters to the Archives of Falconry at the The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
SFR: New Mexico’s role and your role in the recovery of the peregrine falcon is a key part of the story of how the bird came back from the edge of extinction. How well-known is that history?
Tom Smylie: It’s known in the raptor community. The fact is, falconers have made real strides in protecting birds of prey because when I started, nobody cared. You know, they used to shoot them all the time. And, of course, falconers were the founders of The Peregrine Fund. Falconers led the way; government couldn’t do it. They put [the bird] in these huge flight cages, and all they did was bang into each other. You can’t do what we did 8 to 5. Jim Weaver lived at The Peregrine Fund barn and he was up at two o’clock in the morning feeding baby birds and checking for hatching and that kind of dedication. You don’t get that kind of commitment out of a government job. So the Fish and Wildlife Service was not successful in breeding them. They just didn’t get it. I was fortunate enough. I had the peregrines out here that I knew about nesting, because we didn’t have the DDT out here in the extent that it was back in the Midwest and the East. We had a few nests and I knew of about five active peregrine nests. Three of them were up in the Jemez and up in other parts of the state. They nest on high cliffs. And so I took three pair out of different nests in two years and I started trying to breed them. Dr. Tom Cade heard about it and flew out here and asked me if he could have them to start The Peregrine Fund. It was the smartest move I’ve ever made because I gave them to him.
How did you know where the nesting falcons were?
I started off my studies on golden eagles for the Fish and Wildlife Service when I was still teaching school and working for the Forest Service. I had about five years of flying in a little light aircraft...I knew where these eagle nests were, but I had to find them on the ground. So I spent the whole summer: They gave me a GS2 or something and gave me a pickup and a gas card. And I went around all summer looking for these eagle nests. And in that process, I found all other kinds of raptors, for example, prairie falcons and peregrines nesting on these cliffs, so I knew where the peregrines were.
What was it like to witness the effects of DDT on the birds?
To me, the skies had been empty without them. I really believe that. I would go to cliffs where the peregrines were—like Taughannock Falls in New York, where peregrines used to exist—and it seems like it lost its soul in some ways. The falcons used to be on these beautiful cliffs and they just weren’t there anymore. It really affected me. I didn’t want to be a part of something going extinct. [Irish falconer] Ronald Stevens told me, ‘You need to go out and harvest some of those peregrines, because they’re going to disappear. And you won’t be able to fly them anymore.’ And so I went out, and we got these birds into captivity and that was a seed crop for starting to breed the birds in captivity.
Did they return to the lab in an airplane?
Oh yes, they flew them back, they were as valuable as any diamonds at the time. We were right on the brink of extinction. They figured there were probably less than 100 birds left at the time in the lower 48.
The Peregrine Fund introduced more than 6,000 birds back into the wild between 1974 and 1999. How many of those can be attributed to the birds you captured in New Mexico?
I don’t have a number. What happens is nature has a mechanism with these birds, that if, say, a raven got in there and destroyed the eggs or a raccoon or something got in there, they will re-cycle. So in captivity, what we do is a falcon would lay eggs and we would take that clutch and she would re-cycle. We got to the point where we could take one pair of peregrines to produce 14 eggs or 20 eggs. And then we put them in incubators. And then they went back in the chambers for the parents to raise them before they could fly but when they were feathered. We did an ancient falconer technique called hacking: You take him and put him on what they call a hack board. And they put food there and then feed them and then eventually the instinct is he would go out and fly around and become a falcon and then he’d come back because there was always groceries there...So what we did—and I did one of the first experiments here with prairie falcons—is I would hack them back out into the wild. And then they started doing this hacking back East and the peregrines would revert back to the wild.
There have been 1,300 species listed under the Endangered Species Act and only 54 have come off the list because of recovery. What is it about the peregrine that landed it in this elite group of animals to return?
It was a flagship species. One of the things that made it is we had such a dedicated group of falconers. “Man has emerged from the shadows of antiquity with a peregrine on his wrist.” I’ve got that statement around here from [American naturalist] Roger Tory Peterson. And I mean, the first time I saw a peregrine and it had a broken wing—a guy had it, a rehabber type, and I thought that was the most fantastic creature I’d ever seen. I mean, it just captures certain people, and you cannot make a falconer. I can’t make you a falconer. But if you have an interest in having a relationship with these birds, nothing can stop you....And a lot of these people were from science as well as coming from the privilege of flying these birds.
We all know about DDT from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which was a big villain, but was that the only reason the peregrines were in danger? What are the dangers today, 60 years after that book?
There were other reasons. With all species, it’s habitat loss, there are too bloody many people. And of course, at one time before the laws on migratory birds were put in they were shot. I mean, those hats that you see in the roaring ‘20s and stuff with all those egret feathers and stuff. Those are all slaughtered. That’s why Teddy Roosevelt set aside the first wildlife refuge on Pelican Island, Florida. I’m a big fan of Teddy’s. And the ranchers were hard on eagles...Everything eats a sheep, and [predators in general] did have a big impact on ranchers. You know, they were shooting them on airplanes until the Eagle Act was passed…they’d fly along and they’d shoot out of the Cessna windows. Raptors have no fear of a plane...Everything eats chickens too, so they were killing them justifiably. But you try to educate.
What turns the tide?
Well, one thing is the law, and that made a big difference. And then, of course, if you start reaching out to young people, that’s what I was doing with my TV programs and stuff. And you get the young people in there at the dinner table: ‘Well, Dad we don’t need to shoot those hawks, they’re beneficial. I found out that they eat ground squirrels and they eat rats and rattlesnakes.’ Like everything with us right now as a species, education is everything. And we’ve got a whole group that don’t want us to be educated. They want to burn books. Sound familiar? And that’s what’s disturbing because, well, that whole Trump administration denied science. They just plain deny science. And it’s the only really truthful thing we have.
Because it has to be proven. They’re not always right, it has to be proven. And so I have a religion: it’s science. You know, I really like NASA and all that stuff. And I really support it. But this bullshit of going to Mars, or wherever. We live on a planet full of life, a beautiful planet, with water, all this is going on. And we want to go up and live in a dust bowl. And we can’t breathe the air. There’s nothing, no plants, no greenery, maybe water. And we’re spending billions of dollars that we could be educating our kids with. And I have real mixed emotions because I really support the science of it. But I’m saying I think we’ve got our priorities mixed up. Why are we gonna go live on that when we can’t take care of this ball we’re living on right now?
What are the threats to the raptors today?
Chemicals. There’s still DDT in the environment and that’s a concern. But the most basic problem, I mean, one of the big problems we found with them is power poles...what we’re finding is the young are very awkward. A good adult comes up, folds its wings and lands, but these juvenile eagles, for example, and red tail hawks and ravens and everything, they go up and land on it and their wings are over it, they make contact and it fries them...And then the windmills. The way I look at energy is that none of it’s free. You’re gonna pay a price environmentally, no matter which energy you use. You can say solar: It’s good and it’s better than so much more. But you’ve got species that live there and that affects them. The wind generators: They put them on the ridges where they get the best uplift and draft. But that’s where the raptors migrate. And those blades go 120 miles an hour out at the tip. And these haven’t evolved with them and they chop up raptors…Anything we do makes an impact.
You mentioned while we were flying Maverick today that drought makes the game scarce.
In my studies, when there was a bad year, a dry year, I’d see the eagles build a nest and then they wouldn’t lay any eggs. There wasn’t enough food base to do that. I wish people were that wise.
Does the hotter, drier future for the West mean bad news?
It changes, that’s all. This spaceship has been changed so friggin’ many times. So, for example, now you got armadillos in Oklahoma. You got Harris hawks moving north in Texas. These animals are adapting to it. You’ve got other species that disappear. You’ve got adaptable animals for deserts and then you’ve got the animals that are there because there was a rainforest. If you look back thousands of years, you’ve got some big stuff to deal with. Where we are, out here right now, that was Estancia Lake. It was 400 feet deep. Covered the whole Estancia Valley. We had wooly mammoths, mastodons, giant land sloths. We had all kinds of creatures that were there. And then the lake dried up and then it came back again. I mean, there’s a whole history of this lake out here and we would have been on the shoreline. That’s all changed and now it’s just a bunch of salt flats down there near Willard. But it’s important to the Sandhill Cranes because they come there and roost. The sandhill cranes used to go all the way to old Mexico. But now they stop here because we got some pivot irrigation going on with the agriculture and now they have food supply and we have greater sandhill cranes all up and down the Estancia Valley. The animals adapt. And what we do that’s different is we make it quick. We do it very fast. What would take 10,000 years on the shores of Lake Estancia, we do it in 100 years and that’s why I think the animals can’t adjust as fast as we’re changing. If people thought this virus, the COVID, was something—it’s nothing compared to what we got coming with the climate. I don’t know how we are going to get past it as a species. We are gonna have to make a lot of changes.
You’ve spent a lot of your life educating people and trying to get these messages out. What is your message and why have you spent so much of your time and effort on this?
Baba Dioum said, ‘We will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.’ And to me, that’s the essence of it. Those words. I feel that when people see these raptors and they see how beautiful they are and how special, they are not going to shoot them. I feel if legislation comes along to stop something that’s threatening their existence, they’re gonna step up...And I think that’s the reason why I do it. I mean, at my age, I should be playing shuffleboard.