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Filling Big Shoes: A Tribute to Joe Hickey

It has been 50 years since Joe Hickey, successor to Aldo Leopold’s faculty position at University of Wisconsin-Madison, hosted a landmark conference on the global status of the Peregrine Falcon. The 1965 Madison Peregrine Conference, as it has come to be known, was a highlight of Joe’s career, and it elevated the Peregrine Falcon to the status of a symbol of how synthetic chlorinated hydrocarbons like the pesticide DDT had become a ubiquitous threat to wildlife worldwide. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary, the Raptor Research Foundation is this week at its annual conference celebrating Joe and the Madison Peregrine Conference, where a brief tribute I recorded for Joe will be shared. It is appropriate for the Aldo Leopold Foundation to likewise remember how Joe Hickey carried on Aldo Leopold’s legacy and changed the outlook for not only the Peregrine Falcon and other raptors, but also for the health of global food chains dangerously contaminated with toxic chemicals.

An eastern Peregrine Falcon at Taughannock Falls, NY

An eastern Peregrine Falcon at Taughannock Falls, NY

Joe Hickey earned his masters degree in 1942 at the University of Wisconsin under Aldo Leopold. When Leopold accepted him, Joe was already an established figure in ornithology. Growing up in the Bronx, Joe’s boyhood birding companions were future ornithological giants such as Roger Tory Peterson–“The Bronx Boys” as they were known among New York’s birding leaders of the day. Joe’s interest in ornithology persisted, and he eventually decided to pursue a graduate degree. Aldo Leopold’s new department offered just the type of degree Joe wanted, one that used science in support of conservation. His masters thesis, published as A Guide to Bird Watching, promoted bird watching as an activity that was perfectly in keeping with Leopold’s ideas about the potential importance of average citizens observing nature, interpreting those observations and using the results to promote land health. As Leopold noted, “Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search, and the chance of finding order and meaning in these events.” Joe’s book explained how birders could not only enjoy watching birds but also keep records and contribute to science and conservation.

Joe Hickey

Joe Hickey, birding binoculars in hand

After Joe earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan showing how bird-banding data could be used to understand bird population dynamics, Leopold recruited him to return to the University of Wisconsin and become the second professor in what had been up to that point a one-man department. Shortly after Joe’s arrival on campus, Aldo died unexpectedly, and Joe was suddenly left as the sole occupant of Leopold’s department with very big shoes to fill. One of his first tasks was helping get the draft manuscript of A Sand County Almanac ready for publication. For the next 28 years Joe established an outstanding reputation that proved Leopold had made a wise selection of the person who would unexpectedly and through tragic circumstances become his successor.

Joe had always been fascinated with Peregrine Falcons, and even while he was a student with Leopold he published an important early paper on eastern peregrine populations and began assembling an atlas of all the known historical eyries where the birds nested. His interest in Peregrine Falcons was rekindled decades later when populations around the world began collapsing with no clear explanation. As one of the few birds with a worldwide distribution, the Peregrine Falcon signaled that the threat wasn’t just a local phenomenon but must be something happening at a global scale.

Joe Hickey peregrine chicks

The 2014 nestling on the right was raised in Madison, WI, and named “Joe” in honor of Joe Hickey

Joe assembled raptor enthusiasts from around the world to come to Madison to present their information on the Peregrine Falcon’s status. Many of the participants were the very types of individuals that Leopold and Hickey had foreseen as today’s modern citizen scientists: keen, skillful, non-professional field observers who keep and share information about nature and advocate for land health. Joe carefully edited their reports into his 1969 book, Peregrine Falcon Populations: Their Biology and Decline, which is now considered a classic. It catalyzed what has become an active group of citizen scientists and conservationists comprised of raptor enthusiasts of various backgrounds. The Raptor Research Foundation was formed in 1966 as a direct outcome of the 1965 conference. It has become a hub for efforts to restore the Peregrine Falcon and other raptors in the post-DDT era and an ongoing force in accumulating and disseminating scientific information about hawks, eagles, falcons and owls.

Joe Hickey Peregrine Falcon Populations

The dust jacket of Joe’s peregrine book

Joe Hickey’s 1965 conference had several significant outcomes:

  • It helped reveal the cause of worldwide declines in raptor populations by looking at an environmental problem from a global perspective.
  • It launched a modern raptor conservation movement populated mainly by dedicated citizen scientists.
  • It catalyzed efforts to recover Peregrine Falcons and other threatened raptors that eventually resulted in their being removed from endangered species lists.
  • It gave Joe a strong position from which to help lead the effort toward banning DDT, in Wisconsin in 1970 and later throughout the US.

In the end, for one group of species, Joe Hickey had answered Aldo Leopold’s 1936 call for “not only an inventory of threatened forms, but an inventory of information, techniques, and devices applicable to each species in each place, and of local human agencies capable of applying them.” Aldo would undoubtedly have been proud of his successor’s accomplishments.