Morley Nelson

1917-2005 The raptor world loses a great friend


On February 21, birds of prey lost an ardent advocate. Morley Nelson, falconer, educator and conservationist, was 88 years old at his death. To say that Nelson had an enormous impact on how we view birds of prey today is an understatement.

Since his childhood in North Dakota, Nelson had an unwavering interest and passion for birds of prey. In his biography of Nelson, Cool North Wind: Morley Nelson's Life With Birds of Prey, author Stephen Stuebner describes the moment in which young Nelson began his livelong devotion to hawks: "He had just witnessed the fastest single action in nature, a peregrine falcon diving with authority to kill a duck instantly ... 'I've got to have one of them,' he whispered in the wind." From that time, Nelson had a passion for raptors, especially falcons. Drawn to the birds' power and nobility, Nelson lived a life committed to understanding and preserving raptors and their habitats.

While it seems like Morley Nelson was always about raptors, and certainly that is his public persona and his legacy, other significant events contributed to the fabric of Nelson's long and interesting life. Nelson is distinguished for his work on behalf of raptors, but he was not a falconer by trade, but a soil scientist (graduating from North Dakota State University in 1938). Though his career with the Soil Conservation Service did not bring Nelson the fame of raptor advocacy, he had many accomplishments in his field of hydrology. During World War II, training under (and clashing with) "Old Blood and Guts" Gen. Patton, Nelson went on to serve in Europe with the 10th Mountain Division. Enduring tragedy and serious injury in his war service, Nelson would emerge a hero, a recipient of the Silver Star for leadership and bravery in combat.

Through it all, Nelson's loyalty to birds of prey actively endured, as is evident in Stuebner's 2002 biography. The book covers Nelson's remarkable life, but as implied by the title, what comes through again and again in all phases of Nelson's life is his abiding interest in raptors. Cool North Wind illustrates Nelson's birding life, not simply in terms of his passion for birds, but also in terms of Nelson's extensive network of impact.

Among Nelson's many notable accomplishments: Nelson starred in and developed seven wildlife films for Walt Disney, and others for PBS and other networks. He counted his films as some of his most significant achievements, the portal that would bring the subject of raptors and their preservation to major public attention, combining entertainment and education. In his films, Nelson worked with figures like Disney, Joanne Woodward, Nell Newman (Woodward and Paul Newman's daughter), John Denver and Lynn Redgrave, to name a few. Working with former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus (who was Interior Secretary at the time), in 1980 Nelson was instrumental in establishing the nearly 500-acre Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (which received permanent protection in 1993), home to a multitude of raptors. Nelson was also largely responsible for facilitating the location of the Peregrine Fund's headquarters in Boise, establishing here the World Center for Birds of Prey. Nelson's work with Idaho Power and Edison Electric to modify their power line designs to prevent the electrocution of raptors resulted in similar safety efforts nationally and internationally by other utility agencies. Nelson traveled as far as Europe and the Middle East to speak on the safety retrofits and to spread his expertise in falconry.

Nelson's mark was felt more widely than those things on which he had a direct effect. Friends and admirers say that Nelson was eager to talk to people about his beloved birds. An interview was likely to become a three-hour education, and he often mentored young people, imparting his passion for raptors in a knowledgeable and generous way. A fixture at his foothills refuge in Boise's North End, Nelson's could be seen flying his birds in the neighborhood, and he became the go-to guy when Idahoans found injured birds. If an injury was too complicated for Nelson's basic first-aid repertoire, Nelson would bring birds to Dr. John Lee, who has been patching up injured raptors since the early 1970s.

When asked what Nelson's greatest legacy might be, Stuebner says, "It's hard to narrow it down to one thing because he's just done so much." Nelson was able to do something exceptional with his passion for birds of prey: he was able to channel that enthusiasm into something concrete. Believing in the beauty and dignity of the raptor's power, Nelson didn't just talk about the majestic birds, he championed them. Or as Bill Burnham, president of The Peregrine Fund, simply puts it: "Morley was one of kind, and we'll miss him."