Wildlife biologist Monte Kirven, who scaled cliffs to reach the nests of peregrine falcons on the brink of extinction and helped revive the threatened population, died in his longtime Santa Rosa home when the Tubbs fire burned through his Mark West Springs neighborhood. He was 81.
Kirven told his children his lifelong passion for falcons began in Tennessee when he was about 15 and working in a taxidermy shop. As he told it, a hawk thought to be dead came to life as he was preparing to preserve it, and perched on his fist.
“That was the moment he knew he was going to be a falconer,” said one of his sons, Brian Kirven of Point Reyes.
Kirven’s career in environmental conservation and education spanned decades. Kirven ran education programs at the Scripps institution of Oceanography in La Jolla and the San Diego Natural History Museum before earning an environmental sciences Ph.D. at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He taught biology and ecology classes at Santa Rosa Junior College.
In the 1980s he worked out of the Bureau of Land Management’s Ukiah district, a nomadic life from March through September when he traveled across Northern California searching for the nests of wild peregrine falcons, a bird of prey remarkable for its 200 mph speed at free fall. By the late 1970s, there were only five known pairs of peregrines in the western United States, said his fellow biologist and friend, Geoff Monk, 63, of Alamo.
The insecticide DDT — banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 — had built up in the tissues of insects, small mammals and birds, and creatures up the food chain. For birds, the pesticide hampered the production of calcium, leading to thin eggshells that were easily damaged.
The DDT ban wasn’t enough to stem the birds’ decline, and Kirven was instrumental in ensuring the survival of their young in Northern California.
“Humans brought these birds to near extinction, and we have a moral obligation to bring them back,” Kirven said in a 1988 story about falcon hatching programs in the Times Herald newspaper in Port Huron, Michigan.
He and a partner — often Monk — would scour the region’s cliffsides by helicopter to find peregrine falcon nests, then rappel down to reach them. They had to collect the eggs within about three days of hatching and get them to a special breeding facility at UC Santa Cruz. Once hatched, they returned the young, usually to their original nests.
The plan worked. The peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered list in 1999.
“That’s a fantastic recovery,” said Serena Baker, spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management based in El Dorado Hills. “One former colleague said he was a superstar and very knowledgeable. You had to be a bit of a wild man to be willing to get out on those cliffs.”
Kirven was born in 1936 in San Diego to Virginia Cooke and Frank Kirven. He was raised by his mother and grandmother.
His family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was a teenager. He earned a biology degree at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and then joined the U.S. Army, afterward serving in the Army Reserves and working as a cartographer, said his former wife, Valerie Quate of Poway.
“He was always a naturalist, wandering around every forest or stream he could find,” Quate said.
After a long day in the field, Kirven often raced back to Santa Rosa to teach at Santa Rosa Junior College. He was known for lively field trips, earning the moniker “swervin’ Kirven” for his enthusiasm for birds even while behind the wheel, according to several friends and his son.
Kirven was social, with tall tales and an easy laugh, often showing up to a party with one of his birds. He loved to paint, his subjects usually falcons or wild oak lands.
“A lot of biologists might just rather be out in the woods, but Monte loved people,” Monk said.
His greatest passion was the peregrine falcon and falconry, a hunting sport, communicating with a bird 1,000 feet above and training it to, on a signal, make its impressive dive out of the sky for prey. Once, when Kirven was flying a falcon a bull charged and knocked him down. He told his children he got back up and kept running with his bird.
“He never gave up,” his son said.
In addition to his son, Kirven is survived by a second son, Kenneth Kirven of San Diego, and a daughter, Kathleen Groppe of Dallas, Texas.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.