Brian Walton, leader of falcon recovery effort, dies at age 55

Brian Walton, with peregrine eggs. (Photo: Todd Tsukushi, 1986)

Brian James Walton, whose leadership of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group was highlighted by the pivotal role the group played in the restoration of the peregrine falcon on the West Coast, died of a stroke on June 15 at a Santa Cruz hospital. Walton, who served as the coordinator of the University of California, Santa Cruz program for 31 years, was 55.

"Brian was a respected and dedicated individual with a lifelong passion for falcons," said Gary Griggs, director of UC Santa Cruz's Institute of Marine Sciences and a colleague of Walton's for the past three decades. "His and his research group's work on raptor recovery, conservation, and study will benefit these amazing birds for decades to come."

Walton, who first began studying peregrine falcons while a high school student in the Southern California city of Manhattan Beach, participated in the first California peregrine falcon survey in 1970. That survey found only two successfully nesting pairs of falcons remaining in California.

The culprit was discovered to be the compound DDT, considered to be a safe and effective agricultural insecticide in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Accumulating in the fatty tissue of peregrines, DDT acted to "block" the movement of calcium during eggshell formation. With abnormally thin eggshells, the species' eggs broke and peregrine embryos died at an alarming rate. In 1972, the federal government banned the compound.

Recruited by SCPBRG's two founders Ken Norris, a professor of natural history at UCSC, and Jim Roush, a Santa Cruz orthopedic veterinarian, Walton coordinated the work of field biologists and oversaw the program's breeding activities; he also became the face of the SCPBRG, speaking tirelessly of the peregrine's plight and leading fundraising efforts to support the recovery. During the height of the program's peregrine falcon captive breeding and management activities, SCPBRG employed more than 50 permanent and seasonal staff per year. These included students and other temporary employees who camped out for weeks or months to observe nest and staff-made "hack" sites.

In order to salvage thin-shelled wild eggs that would likely be broken by the incubating adults, program personnel climbed to their eyries, substituted dummy eggs for the thin-shelled eggs, and hatched as many eggs as possible in the SCPBRG laboratory.

The program's recovery efforts also proved to be a popular attraction at its original location in UCSC's Lower Quarry, as scientists, bird lovers, and the general public toured the facilities for a look at a hands-on endangered species recovery program.

In 1999, the peregrine falcon, nearly extinct two decades earlier, became one of the few endangered species to be "delisted"--removed from the endangered species list--by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Last year, SCPBRG staff conducted a statewide census of peregrines in California and documented 179 active nest territories.

In addition to its peregrine falcon work, the SCPBRG under Walton's leadership has been involved in research in captive breeding and wildlife management of eagles, condors, and other rare or endangered raptors. The program is now located at UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory.

In 2004, Walton was honored as an Audubon champion at the annual Audubon California awards luncheon in San Francisco.

Walton earned degrees in biological sciences from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo (bachelor's), and San Jose State University (master's).

"Brian's life, which was defined by tremendous accomplishment, was even more meaningful as he overcame diabetes thanks to successful pancreas and kidney transplants in the early 1990s," said his brother, Ron Walton.

A public memorial service for Walton will take place June 30 at 11 a.m. at the Santa Cruz High School baseball field. Walton's other passion was baseball, having served as a coach in the school's baseball program for almost 10 years.

Walton's survivors include his wife, Hollis Feurtado of Santa Cruz; a son, Neil Walton of Santa Cruz; a daughter, Eleanor Walton of Santa Cruz; a father, James Walton, and a brother, Ron Walton, both of Arroyo Grande, California; former wife, Cheryl Walton of Santa Cruz; and three stepchildren, Peter, Fallon, and Katie Feurtado of Santa Cruz.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Brian James Walton Memorial Fund. The fund is managed by the Bank of America; donations should be mailed to 849 Almar Avenue, Suite C, Box 332, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.