Remembering the Northern California fire victims: Monte Kirven

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The Press Democrat remembers the 40 lives lost in the North Bay fires. Click here for more of the stories.

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, told his children his lifelong passion for falcons began in Tennessee when he was 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. The bird 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. He ran education programs at the Scripps institution of Oceanography in La Jolla and the San Diego Natural History Museum before earning an environmental sciences doctorate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He taught biology and ecology classes at Santa Rosa Junior College.

In the 1980s, he worked in the Bureau of Land Management’s Ukiah district, a nomadic life from March through September traveling the state searching for the nests of wild peregrine falcons, a bird of prey remarkable for its 200 mph speed at free fall. Its population had diminished dramatically. The insecticide DDT, which built up in the tissues of insects and animals, hampered the production of calcium in birds, leading to thin eggshells easily damaged.

“Humans brought these birds to near extinction, and we have a moral obligation to bring them back,” Kirven said in a 1988 newspaper story.

He died in his longtime Linda Lane home when the Tubbs fire burned through his rural Santa Rosa neighborhood off Mark West Springs Road. He was 81.

Kirven was ultimately instrumental in ensuring the survival of peregrine falcons in Northern California. He and a partner scoured the region’s cliffsides by helicopter to find peregrine falcon nests, then rappelled down on ropes. They collected the eggs within three days of hatching, bringing them to a breeding facility at UC Santa Cruz. Once the falcons hatched, Kirven returned them to the nest.

The plan worked. The peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered list in 1999.

After a long day in the field, Kirven often raced back to teach at SRJC. He was known for lively field trips, earning the moniker “swervin’ Kirven” for his enthusiasm for birdwatching while behind the wheel. 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.

His greatest passion was falconry. Part sport hunting, part dance, the falconer communicates with a bird 1,000 feet above, signaling the animal to make its stunning dive out of the sky for prey. Once, a bull charged Kirven as he was flying a falcon, and the burly animal knocked him down. As he told it, he got back up and kept running with his bird. “He never gave up,” Brian Kirven said.

He is also survived by son Kenneth Kirven of San Diego, and daughter Kathleen Groppe of Dallas.

The Press Democrat remembers the 40 lives lost in the North Bay fires. Click here for more of the stories.

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