Originally published in hardcover in 1991, Wings for My Flight chronicles the adventures and misadventures of a young female biologist stationed atop Chimney Rock between Bayfield and Pagosa Springs as she and her companion gather data on nesting peregrine falcons. Her research covered the summer seasons of 1975 to 1978 – though the book more closely describes her first season atop the ridge when the U.S. Forest Service road was new, and rutted and local animosity against environmentalism in general and peregrines in particular was acute.
Those were the prefeminist days of a male-dominated San Juan National Forest and a Forest Service more interested in timber sales and tourism than in natural- or cultural-resource protection. Some of the biases in the book may have been real, or they may derive from false hindsight – but 1975 was 39 years ago, and perhaps the district Forest Ranger really did think a young female college graduate could get lost or hurt atop Chimney Rock. If so, he was right – about her getting hurt. Where he was wrong was in miscalculating Marcy Cottrell Houle’s spunk and perseverance and her scientific dedication to an endangered species.
The peregrines utilized a nesting area called a scrape that may have been used for centuries. Probably peregrines had been there in 1076 when ancestral Puebloans built a Great House. If the nesting site was old, the threats to peregrines were new based on pesticides and DDT use resulting in thin-shelled eggs. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to protect American flora and fauna. Two years later when Houle began her research, only 7 pairs of wild peregrines remained in all of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.
Peregrine field studies were just being undertaken to save the species and to understand its habitat needs. Local misunderstanding and resentment bubbled up against the government and environmentalism in general. In the summer of 1975, a female peregrine – of a monogamous pair because peregrines mate for life – was shot dead. Questions arose as to whether the young nestlings would survive and whether Houle’s work could be completed. Even her dilapidated Forest Service trailer was vandalized.
I truly enjoyed this book. Having hiked Chimney Rock during various seasons and at night for full-moon programs, I appreciate the author taking us back to when that magnificent setting was threatened both by coal mine development and tourism of the ancestral Puebloan site on the ridgeline. Houle writes development plans even included an inclined a tram from U.S. Highway 160 to the Chimney Rock ridge.
She is naive as a young field biologist, fresh from finishing her college degree, but she has excellent mentors and a firm sense of purpose. Overall, the reader learns about a young woman’s time alone in wilderness settings, and Wings for My Flight explains the urgent need for wild animals to have suitable habitat.
Houle explains everything about peregrine mating, nesting and how a peregrine pair raises young birds. To be “hacked” as a raptor is to be returned to the wild to eyries where these birds live on some of the most remote and precipitous cliffs in the American West. The reader learns about captive breeding programs, nest augmentation and reverse-sized dimorphism – or the fact the male peregrine, or tiercel, is smaller than the female. Peregrines, the fastest animal in North America (exceeding 200 mph), can spot small prey at a distance of two miles. They fly, swoop, spin, pirouette and make specific sounds as they hunt and defend their territory. Houle offers: “There is a special quality about peregrines – a look in the eye, a kind of aristocratic stance, a fine-detailing of plumage – that according to falconers, makes them stand out as the champions of the bird world (p.19).”
Written with an abiding sense of place and a deep passion for raptors, she admits that “To study ecology means to feel despair, but it is also to know the beauty and intricacy of life and to feel hope (p.139).” Indeed, peregrines have made a comeback. Against all odds. the Peregrine Falcon Recovery Team brought the birds back from the brink of extinction. Chimney Rock is now protected thanks to President Obama’s declaration of 4,726 acre Chimney Rock Archaeological Area as a new Forest Service National Monument.
For that, we owe the peregrines because without them, inappropriate development may have occurred. And without Marcy Cotrell Houle, we never would have known what we almost lost. I highly recommend this book for readers interested in our area, in the Southwest, in raptors, in nature writing and in essential eco-advocacy.
Wings for My Flight is a personal story, but also a chronicle of environmental success. Without a doubt, peregrines saved Chimney Rock for the rest of us.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.