Tom Cade, a Cornell professor who spent decades advocating for the endangered peregrine falcon, died in Boise, Idaho on Feb. 6. He was 91. Cade is survived by his wife, Renetta Mae Bennewater, and their five children.
Cade, who previously served as the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology from 1967 to 1984, founded the Hawk Barn — a peregrine breeding space in Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca. He also established the Peregrine Fund, a conservation group dedicated to ensuring the longevity and survival of the peregrine and other rare birds internationally.
“He was a no-nonsense person, everyone knew he meant business,” said John Fitzpatrick, current executive director of the Ornithology lab. However, Cade also had a light-hearted side that was accompanied by a trademark big smile. “He was a courageous outdoorsman,” Fitzpatrick said.
In the 1950s and 60s, DDT was a widespread agricultural insecticide. The chemical compound lowered the amount of calcium in the peregrine falcon’s eggshells, making them susceptible to cracks, and ultimately resulting in the deaths of their young.
Although DDT was banned from use in 1972, peregrine falcons had already become locally extinct in the eastern United States due to a lack of an ability to breed, and the few numbers that remained were placed on the Endangered Species list in 1970.
Previously, falcons had never been domesticated and were very rarely bred in captivity, which made many question whether Cade’s efforts to save the falcons were worthwhile. Cade’s method involved raising the young birds in captivity, and then training the birds to be independent by gradually releasing them into the wild.
Through Cade’s breeding work at the Ornithology Lab, 16 falcons were bred and released in 1975 throughout the Northeast. Their numbers tripled by 1977, and kept increasing exponentially thereafter.
“Because [peregrines] love to nest on cliffs, cities turned out to be really great places [for them to live], because we have these fake cliffs called buildings,” Fitzpatrick said. “[Cade] was a very results-oriented person, so he was the perfect guy to [lead the conservation efforts],” Fitzpatrick told The Sun.
By 1999, the peregrine falcon was taken off the Endangered Species List, and their population has remained stable ever since.
Tom Cade was born on Jan. 10, 1928, in San Angelo, Texas. After serving in the army from 1946 to 1947, he received a bachelor’s degree at the University of Alaska in 1951. He then acquired his master’s in 1955 and his PhD in 1957 from the University of California, Los Angeles.
After his time at Cornell, Cade relocated to Boise, Idaho along with the Peregrine Fund to open the World Center for Birds of Prey and work as director of raptor research at Boise State University.
Although he had been officially retired prior to his passing, Cade was never completely removed from the world of ornithology. In the past few years, Cade had been very outspoken about the detrimental effects of lead on birds and continued to attend conferences and meetings on behalf of falcon conservation.
Cade last visited the Cornell ornithology lab in 2015 to celebrate its centennial.
The Peregrine Fund has established a fund in Cade’s name that will “honor his achievements and ensure his legacy continues in perpetuity,” according to the Peregrine Fund website. This includes continued falcon conservation efforts and the implementation of a global raptor population tracking tool to identify places of high conservation value. Donations are accepted via the Peregrine Fund website.
In an editorial from Audobon magazine, an organization focused on the conservation of birds, fellow falconer Tim Gallagher shared an anecdote from a sit-down interview he had with Cade a few years ago.
“Two years before that, I had managed to sit Tom down and interview him about his accomplishments in the peregrine reintroduction,” he said. “Toward the end of our discussion, I said, ‘You must feel pretty fulfilled at this point.’ He laughed and said, ‘I can die happy.’”