In Memoriam: James A. "Jim" Willmarth 1945 – 2011

Curator of Birds

Jim Willmarth

By Bill Heinrich and colleagues remembering the life of Jim.

Jim got involved in falconry in 1955, and he first began working with The Peregrine Fund in 1980. Little did he know at the time that he was about to take a new direction involving his life with raptors. Jim started at one of the most difficult Peregrine hack sites being used that year in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, named on the map, Death Canyon. Jim showed up fresh from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in his street shoes. By the time the crew set up his camp, after a two-hour hike straight up the mountain, Jim’s shoes were literally falling off of his feet. The crew planned to set up another camp and Jim volunteered to do that as well, even though he was by now half barefooted. Bill Heinrich sent him to town to buy some hiking boots instead. Everyone learned a lot about Jim at that moment. He did a tremendous job that summer and became part of the Peregrine Fund family at once.

In 1984, Jim Weaver called on Jim to help construct The Peregrine Fund’s new breeding facility in Boise, Idaho. Jim answered the call, putting his construction talent to work and performing flawlessly as usual. As the Peregrine release work geared up, Jim was hired to become one of Bill Heinrich’s release assistants, which he did for 11 years until The Peregrine Fund finished releasing Peregrines in 1997. Peregrines were removed from the endangered species list in 1999. All of the releases took place during the spring and summer months and during the off-season Jim had other jobs and 2 pursued the sport of falconry. Jim’s close friend Anthony Crosswell from England wrote a few words about the time they spent together hawking in New Mexico:

"We bought a house together in Albuquerque in 1990 and lived together for that season hawking all over the Midwest out of a trailer I bought – it was a great time – we trapped my Prairie, trained and flew it along with our Peregrines and Jim’s hybrid, Gremlin – the first kill was a drake mallard (on its 9th day!) at the Rio Puerco where Jim unhesitatingly waded the stream up to his chest at -10 degrees! This soft Englishman looked for a less challenging crossing. Jim showed me some pictures of himself hanging out of a helicopter doing hack site work, but I have lost track of those."

During one of his off-season experiences in 1993, The Peregrine Fund again hired Jim to go to Hawaii to build a state-of-the-art outdoor aviary to house the endangered Alala, better known as the Hawaiian crow. This was the beginning of many of Jim’s world travel experiences.

Bill Heinrich contacted Jim to help construct a new California condor holding pen above the Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona, in August of 2000. Jim and Bill slept outside under the stars with the crew during that time and often discussed their experiences together late into the night after everyone else was fast asleep. The release pen is still in use today.

Later that year, Jim was asked to help work on the Cape Verde Red kite project where Peregrine biologists needed help trapping kites for genetic analysis. Our colleague Simon Thomsett wrote:

Jim Willmarth with Peregrine Falcon

"Dear old Jim, Here's an old recollection: Jim spent a few months in the remote and wind swept archipelago of Cape Verde, off the West African coast. His mission, to catch the rare and elusive Cape Verde Red Kite. This required careful observations of their habits and enduring patience. Waking long before dawn and walking out across the Saharan desert to wait days fruitlessly staring at a distant and hidden bow net, to be thwarted in the end by a faulty transmitter. In the shade of thorn tree he spent the timeless hours relating the virtues of the passage Prairie Falcon over all others, and spoke of his soft spot for his ancient jerkin hybrid, Gremlin. He did in the end catch his kites by tying tiny nooses on locusts and setting them on the tips of branches. It was a genius idea born of innovation spent during a lifetime living with his birds."

Between 2001 and 2003, Jim lived in Portland, Oregon, where he purchased an old house in a quiet little neighborhood. The house was in shambles at the time and Jim completely rebuilt it from scratch, including the entire foundation, and eventually turned it into a beautiful home. When he wasn’t working on the house he attended a motion picture film directors program at the university. Aside from falconry, Jim had a passion for cameras and photography. The Peregrine Fund has often used Jim’s photos in publications, including ones he took at the Death Canyon hack site as far back as 1980. In 2003, Bill Heinrich visited Jim in Portland and saw his totally new, remodeled house. Jim had just put it on the market and was ready to move on. He told Bill that, maybe, he was ready to get a full-time job that offered health insurance. That was great news for The Peregrine Fund, and Bill immediately asked him if he would be interested in working full time with the California condor release project in Arizona. Jim agreed, but first there was another mission for him. Peregrine Fund scientists were involved with the Asian vulture crisis and had just discovered that a pharmaceutical drug named diclofenac was responsible for killing thousands of vultures. There was an urgent need to build holding facilities in Pakistan and Jim was again selected. Veterinarian Dr. Martin Gilbert, who played a major role in making the discovery, wrote the following after working with Jim:

"I was fortunate to spend time with Jim during a critical juncture in the story of vultures in Pakistan. The discovery that the pharmaceutical diclofenac was responsible for the death of vultures all over the Indian subcontinent was still fresh, but our elation at the finding was tempered as we watched whole colonies wink out to extinction one after the other. Jim arrived in Pakistan at a turbulent time, as we tried in desperation to rescue a founder population of vultures to give the species a new hope through a captive restoration program. Politics and time conspired against us, but throughout it all Jim was a rock of reliability, turning a dry wasteland into holding aviaries fit to house 100 vultures within a matter of weeks. Jim combined the good humor and flexibility that made daunting tasks possible, and from a personal perspective he was a huge support at a time that was very difficult indeed. He was a good man, and will be sorely missed."

After Jim returned from Pakistan, he went directly to Arizona where he spent the next four years, 2004 through 2007, working with Chris Parish and the field crew releasing endangered California Condors at the Vermilian Cliffs. Chris Parish wrote the following about that experience:

Jim Willmarth with Peregrine Falcon

"How do you take a guy like Jim, with all of his past experiences, to just settle in to working as a field biologist collecting data in a day to day manner on a species as different from falcons as the California condor? Well, let me tell you……It wasn’t long after Jim arrived in Arizona that I saw that we had something special. Despite the fact that Jim had been working in the field longer than many of our crew had been eating solid foods, he melted into the fabric of the red-rock desert land of the condor. It wasn’t so much that he fit in, but we all fell in around him, his stories of old, and the easy way about him that left nothing too big, too hard, or impossible in the future that lay before us. Nothing stopped this man of steel, yet to the inexperienced or assuming eye, you wouldn’t know his tensile strength. When called to task, look out, because as long as ol’ Jim was there we could handle anything. As with most experiences and relationships, one never seems to know when you are amidst some of the best times of your life, but Jim always seemed to exude an understanding that every day was one of those days. Johnny Cash had a song, "Drive on", and Jim embodied that notion. For those of us lucky enough to love this man, pass his notion along. "Drive on!"

During Jim’s time in Arizona, he was asked to work in Greenland at the request of Peregrine Fund president Dr. Bill Burnham. Bill Heinrich, Cal Sandfort, and Kurt Burnham had the good fortune of spending most of September and part of October of 2004 and 2005 with Jim in East Greenland. During that period, over 100 gyrfalcons were trapped. These were very special times as the close-knit group discovered the northern lights together while living in solitude. Their only company consisted of the migrating falcons, arctic foxes, ptarmigan, arctic hares, a few sled dogs along with the elusive polar bears that were never seen. During this time, Bill, Cal, and Kurt discovered again just how strong Jim was both mentally and physically. There was always a tremendous amount of physical labor involved from carrying water, moving 55 gallon barrels of diesel fuel around, as well as jumping off and onto boats in the frigid arctic water to load and unload equipment. Jim always took care of his comrades first, without a thought about his own safety, and took on more than his share of the work. Life was always good for everyone when Jim was close by.

In 2007, The Peregrine Fund’s current president Peter Jenny asked him to move to Boise, Idaho, and manage our education birds at the World Center for Birds of Prey. Jim was able to utilize his great knowledge of falconry and put together flight demonstrations for the public. He worked with kestrels, peregrines, gyrfalcons, and his favorite Harpy eagle. Trish Nixon worked with Jim during this period and wrote the following:

Jim Willmarth and Trish Nixon

"I wasn’t lucky enough to work with Jim for decades. But during the 3 ½ years that we worked together, he became my friend, my teacher, and my confidante. When I first met and talked with Jim, I felt that I’d known him all my life. I’d been working with our education birds for a decade when Jim joined the team, and with his guidance, we developed more flight shows and I gained an immeasurable amount of knowledge from him in all aspects of falconry, husbandry and understanding raptors. Jim brightened my days, made me laugh, and listened in a way that made me feel comfortable discussing anything with him. We often sat in my office after finishing our work - discussing bird behavior, teasing one another about silly things we did, or talking about how odd both of us were as kids, interested in nothing but birds and wildlife. Jim was dedicated to taking care of our education birds and to demonstrating that raptors are beautiful, welldesigned, vital birds that everyone should care about. I will always remember Jim as the sweet person who prompted a 5-year-old boy to write a note thanking Jim for teaching him to "not be afraid of birds of prey." That same little boy, upon learning of Jim’s illness, wrote, "I am so sorry you are sick. It makes me cry." We all feel that way. A fine, gentle man and steadfast friend has left us – and I, for one, am a better person for having known him and will miss him immensely."

Material items meant nothing to Jim, aside from a camera that could capture images from nature that he could share with others. His determination and work ethic were unmatched, setting a standard that inspires us still. When it came to building things, both large and small, Jim was gifted with a special genius. Finally, it can be said that Jim was a hero to everyone who knew him, and he lived his full life as a free spirit.

media pending

The Peregrine Fund