Remembering Tom Cade, the Father of Peregrine Falcon Conservation

Cade founded The Peregrine Fund and led the effort to save the raptor after its American population plummeted from DDT. Fellow falconer and friend Tim Gallagher looks back on his legacy.

On February 6, 2019, the world lost one of the greatest conservationists of our time: Tom Cade, who died at the age of 91 in Boise, Idaho. What can you say about such a legendary figure? An avid lifelong falconer, dedicated field biologist, Cornell professor, and founder of The Peregrine Fund, he led one of the most ambitious endangered species recovery efforts ever attempted—using captive breeding and groundbreaking release techniques to re-establish Peregrine Falcons in vast areas where the birds’ population had crashed. By the mid-1960s, the Peregrine Falcon was already gone as a breeding species east of the Mississippi and its numbers were plummeting across North America from the effects of DDT contamination. Thanks to the efforts of Tom and his colleagues, the birds are back stronger than ever, and their numbers are still rising each year.

I remember well in 1998 when Audubon magazine published “Champions of Conservation”—a list of 100 people “who shaped the environmental movement and made the 20th century particularly American.” Of course, all of the iconic environmental figures were there—Theodore Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold—but four falconers also made the list: Tom Cade, for his work on behalf of the Peregrine Falcon; Heinz Meng, a SUNY New Paltz professor who was the first person in North America to breed peregrines in captivity and gave the young birds to Cade for his project; and twin brothers John and Frank Craighead. Although the Craigheads are known primarily for their work in radio-tracking grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, they were falconers first. Indeed, it was their 1937 National Geographic article, “Adventures with Birds of Prey,” which Tom read as a nine-year-old, that got him interested in falconry. (Nearly 30 years later—after initially deciding to take up falconry after watching the film “Rusty and the Falcon”—I read the same article in my junior high school library, as well as the Craigheads' book, Hawks in the Hand, and by then was completely hooked myself.) 

Falconers played an inestimable role in the Peregrine Falcon reintroduction, using their knowledge of falcon behavior and centuries-old techniques of how to care for raptors in captivity. The “hack towers” Tom employed to release young captive-bred falcons to the wild had actually been used by falconers since medieval times. The falconers would put young falcons in these structures, leave food for them, and let them fly around freely to gain experience in flying and hunting before being trained. But it was important to recapture the birds before they actually began catching prey because they would soon go off hunting on their own and leave the area. Tom turned the idea of hacking around and deliberately left the young falcons in the towers until they dispersed naturally. It was the ultimate soft release, leaving food for them as long as they needed it without letting them know that humans left it there. This proved to be an incredible innovation and has since been used in numerous reintroductions—including the remarkably successful Bald Eagle reintroduction in New York State, which brought the eagles’ population from one breeding pair in 1976 to more than 300 pairs in the most recent survey. They are now common in the Ithaca area where I live.

I’ve often heard it said that Tom Cade single-handedly saved the American Peregrine Falcon. That’s not completely accurate. A lot of people pitched in to save this bird—including falconers and other raptorphiles of every stripe. What they had in common was an inability to imagine a world without the magnificent Peregrine Falcon and a willingness to do whatever it took to prevent the bird’s extinction. Tom gave them direction and a sense of purpose. Like a force of nature, he set his mind on the goal of saving the Peregrine Falcon—and he never stopped pushing, no matter how long it took or how difficult the effort. If he hit a roadblock, he would figure out how to go over or around it. He never faltered. He never stopped trying. He knew how to marshal the efforts of everyone involved in the peregrine reintroduction—and how to inspire them.

It’s easy to look back now and think the success of Tom’s Peregrine Falcon project was inevitable, but from the vantage point of 1970, things looked much different. Although Peregrine Falcons had been trained and handled by falconers for centuries, they had never been truly domesticated, and only a handful had ever been bred successfully in captivity. Many people thought the effort was futile. Some even declared that the birds should be left alone to “die with dignity.” Tom wouldn’t hear of it. He was always confident the captive-breeding and reintroduction effort would work.

What became The Peregrine Fund actually began informally. People were sending checks to Cornell, where Tom was a professor, to help save the Peregrine Falcon, so Tom set up a bank account for the contributions and called it “The Peregrine Fund.” Officially launched in 1970, The Peregrine Fund went on to become the world’s most important raptor conservation organization, a group that after successfully saving the American Peregrine Falcon turned its attention to other threatened species, such as the California Condor, Mauritius Kestrel, Harpy Eagle, and so many more.

For Tom and The Peregrine Fund, the great milestone year was 1980, when three pairs of captive-bred peregrines nested and produced six young in the wild—the first natural reproduction of Peregrine Falcons east of the Mississippi in more than 20 years. And that was just the beginning. The North American Peregrine Falcon population was rising by 5 to 10 percent a year and was so large by 1999 that the bird’s recovery was considered complete. I remember attending the celebration in August 1999 at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt officially removed the Peregrine Falcon from the Endangered Species List. What an amazing accomplishment—and what a great way to end the 20th century.

I first heard about Tom’s work when I was in my teens and already an avid falconer. Along with the Craigheads, Tom became one of my great heroes. I was thrilled when I finally met him, and we soon became good friends. I always looked forward to getting together with him whenever we were in the same town—at raptor conferences or when I’d go to Boise or he’d come back here to Cornell. And we’d have long telephone conversations. He had such a great sense of humor, which I’ll truly miss.

One of my fondest memories is of taking part in an expedition to northern Greenland with Tom, Bill Burnham (then president of The Peregrine Fund), Kurt Burnham, and Jack Stephens nearly 20 years ago. Decades earlier as a grad student at UCLA in the 1950s, Tom had read an article in a Danish journal by Alfred Bertelsen, an ornithologist who had studied the nesting birds in the Uummannaq region of northern Greenland a century earlier. He decided then and there that someday he would revisit Bertelsen’s study sites, retracing his journeys. Call it a bucket list item, but at age 72, he did just that, traveling countless miles up iceberg-choked fjords in an open boat, camping out on the frozen ground as Arctic winds threatened to rip our tents to shreds. And he did it without complaint, with his typical stoical indifference to hardship and discomfort. 

The last time I saw Tom was a couple of years ago at an International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey conference in Ireland. He was then 89 years old and still traveling the world on behalf of raptor conservation. He gave an interesting talk and was as witty and sharp as ever.

Two years before that, I had managed to sit Tom down and interview him about his accomplishments in the peregrine reintroduction. Toward the end of our discussion, I said, “You must feel pretty fulfilled at this point.” He laughed and said, “I can die happy.” I’ll always remember that.

Tim Gallagher is a writer based in Freeville, New York, and the author of Falcon FeverThe Grail BirdImperial Dreams, and three other books.