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Nature Watch: Craighead brothers’ amazing stories are worth reading

Recently someone called my attention to an essay by Vicki Constantine Croke about the Craighead brothers in the Washington Post Magazine.

Croke’s evocative story, “The Brothers Wild,” follows the careers of Frank and John as they gained international reputations through their World War II survival training programs, their field studies of grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park, including the development and use of radio transmitters and immobilization with tranquilizers, and their writing the National Wild and Scenic River Act.

But I knew the Craighead twins for a different reason. Croke’s essay led me to recall reading their stories and photographs in National Geographic Magazine and in their book, “Hawks in the Hand,” which was published when I was in junior high school.

Fortunately, that book was reissued in 1997. It tells how they and their friends learned and practiced falconry and photography while they were high school and college students. I opened to the first page and rewound my personal history 75 years, immediately finding myself just as engrossed in the adventures of those amazing youngsters.

Those were very different pre-World War II times. Hawks and owls were shot and trapped, because they were seen as killers of farm animals and wildlife. Most were known as chicken hawks and hen hawks. Protection for raptors would not be achieved until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was amended in 1972.

Even ornithologists’ names for raptors were different. I still often use them: sparrow hawk for kestrel; pigeon hawk for merlin; and duck hawk for peregrine falcon. Jamestown native Roger Tory Peterson made an important contribution to that change, using the new names in a revision of his famous “Field Guide to the Birds.”

And those, too, were years before the postwar use of DDT and other pesticides so severely reduced the populations of animals and birds.

So I rejoined the preteen Craighead brothers to remind myself how their interest in raptors was stimulated. They were hiking with their dad along the Potomac River near Chevy Chase, Md., when they flushed a big bird. Their father identified it as a barred owl and suggested it might be nesting nearby in the hole in a sycamore tree. “No longer were we tired,” John said. “The fishing rods, the stringer of catfish were all dropped in a heap as we raced to see who would be the first to climb the tree.”

John managed with some difficulty to climb the sycamore and with even more difficulty extract the owl from its nest 5 feet below the entrance hole. The boys raised that owl as a pet before releasing it, as they did other raptors a year later. But by then they were committed falconers.

They describe in subsequent chapters their adventures with bald and golden eagles; duck, pigeon, sparrow, red-tailed, red-shouldered, broad-winged, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks; great horned, barn, screech, long-eared, short-eared and burrowing owls; ospreys and ravens.

But those adventures were not like those of modern rehabbers: they had to climb trees and rappel down cliffs to reach the nests of these birds. Fortunately, they brought physical strength to these challenging activities.

They also spent many hours photographing these birds. Frank and John had to take photos one at a time, changing plates after each exposure, and then developing and printing them in the darkroom they constructed.

Interestingly, their younger sister, Jean Craighead George, was also an author. Her award-winning children’s book, “My Side of the Mountain,” is another must read.

email: insrisg@buffalo.edu