When Dan O'Brien went to work for The Peregrine Fund Inc. in 1976, DDT had virtually eradicated those fierce, wide-ranging falcons from North America. In the Rocky Mountains, which once provided range for thousands of the birds, only three known breeding pairs remained. O'Brien's mission was to release captive-bred peregrine fledglings into a 500,000-square-mile area extending from the Canadian border to southern Colorado and Utah. It worked. By 1986 O'Brien could count 30 breeding pairs in the Rockies, and the threat of extinction was past. But on his final assignment for the Fund, O'Brien succumbed to sentiment. When a golden eagle killed three of four fledgling peregrines, he decided to keep the remaining bird and teach it himself to hunt, kill and survive on its own in the wild.
The Rites of Autumn: A Falconer's Journey Across the American West (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 192 pages, $17.95) is O'Brien's account of that four-month, 2,000-mile education. But his peregrinations amount to more than just natural history: The book becomes an extended metaphor for the nature of freedom in late-20th-century America. Dolly, his six-week-old female peregrine, begins her schooling on O'Brien's ranch near the Black Hills of South Dakota, progresses to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge hard by the Canadian border in Montana, then swoops in stages clear down the Rocky Mountain spine, through Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, to a stunning conclusion off Padre Island near Corpus Christi.
Along the way O'Brien demystifies the ancient sport of falconry. We share the fears of the falconer who might lose his bird each time he flies it—to accidents, other aerial predators like eagles and owls, or the whim of the free-spirited peregrine itself. "Today I would let her fly past me and try to call her back," O'Brien writes of Dolly's first free flight. "It was not impossible that she would keep going, right past me, gaining altitude, faster and faster, until finally, she would simply disappear...yet I knew, as I walked out to put Dolly on her perch, that flying her free was the reason we were there. The rest of falconry was simply bird keeping."
An account of Dolly's 200-mph stoop (falconers' jargon for "dive") from a soar is typically clear, spare and evocative: "Then I heard a terrible, eerie rush of air.... Ducks scattered in every direction and Dolly dove through the flock. Whether she hit one or not we could not tell. But the force of the stoop carried her four or five hundred feet back up into the air, and when she folded for the second time, she overtook a rattled gad-wall as if it were a helium balloon."
It's not all that easy, of course. At one point, while hunting pheasants, Dolly is almost picked off at dusk by two great horned owls and saves herself until O'Brien's arrival only by instinctively flattening herself over a dead pheasant and freezing—a posture she would have had to maintain all night had it not been for human intervention. During a layover in Denver, where O'Brien visits a friend, he discovers that many of the ponds that used to hold ducks during the fall migration are now either landfilled parking lots or water hazards on a golf course. He is forced to hunt Dolly over a suburban sewage lagoon—and risk trespassing charges in the process.
Dolly's toughest test comes on the bleak, wind-eroded Llano Estacado of western Texas, against lesser prairie chickens (actually members of the grouse family). These canny birds evade her time after time, and O'Brien begins to despair that Dolly will ever survive on her own in the wild. When she does finally kill, it is with a ferocity that almost makes us cheer. Dolly is ready. Or is she? Can the late 20th century truly permit such freedom as she demands?
O'Brien had seen his first peregrine falcon near Padre Island 21 years earlier. His dream is to release Dolly at the same site. The final passages of the book deal with that poignant desire and its encounter with reality.