For The Birds
Ravalli Republic: December 20, 2002
Rod Daniel, staff reporter

Sometimes a good book can change a person's life.

Such was the case for 12-year-old Kate Phillips, who after reading "My Side of the Mountain," wanted to tell the word about raptors. The popular novel by Jean Craighead George tells the story of a young boy who runs away from home to live in the wild and hunt with a peregrine falcon.

The tale made quite an impact on the suburban-Ohio schoolgirl, and within a few months she signed up for the Thursday night bird-skinning class at the nearby Museum of Natural History in Cincinnati. More than 30 years later, she still remembers barely being able to sleep on Wednesday nights, anticipating the next day's class, in which - with luck - she would be able to work on a raptor.

Now married and living in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana, Kate Davis' passion for peregrines hasn't diminished a bit from the time she read the novel. And like the migratory paths of the birds she's spent the better part of her life studying, her high-flying professional journey has brought her back full-circle to another book that she hopes might influence more kids.

Davis, for 14 years executive director of Raptors of the Rockies, just released what may be the most concise and complete book yet on birds of prey. Bearing the same name as the educational organization she created, the 86-page "Raptors of the Rockies" is the culmination of a life-long relationship with some of the unique birds in the world.

Starting as a junior zoologist at the Cincinnati Zoo and moving at age 18 to the Zoology Department at the University of Montana, Davis said from the very beginning her goal was to learn everything there is to know about the meat-eating predatory birds that captured her fancy as a child.

"When I got to Montana after high school I went to (UM ornithologist) Dick Hutto's office and asked him if he had any birds to skin," she recalled. "He opened his freezer and tears came to my eyes. I said, 'God this is perfect."

Davis worked in the UM ornithology lab for years as a work study student and earned a zoology degree there in 1982. For 12 years she worked as a full-time taxidermist, preserving not only birds but also various mammals as well. Several of the beautifully mounted specimens that adorn her Florence-area home won her awards at national taxidermy contests.

But the impulse to educate guided her to work with live birds and in 1988 Davis and her husband moved to a ranch in Clinton and began the program that would later become Raptors of the Rockies. Fourteen years, five Subarus and 760 education programs later, the Davises are firmly nestled in their new home in the Bitterroot Valley, and the organization's popularity has soared to new heights.

Tuesday night, with thousands of her newly released books flying off the shelves of stores across the country, Davis gave her last presentation of the year at the Christmas banquet of the American Foresters Association. Like the 70 or so presentations she's made, mostly to schools, across the state in the last year, she used live raptors and enthusiastic, fact-filled interaction to teach people many of the intriguing facts about owls, harriers, hawks, eagles, falcons and osprey - collectively are referred to as raptors.

The words fly from her mouth like hawks riding thermals on the Rocky Mountain Front, with well-rehearsed anecdotes punctuating her presentation, leaving the audience members with meaty morsels of information to digest on their way home.

"Raptors have five times more photoreceptive cells on their retina than humans," she said. "That's like having more pixels on a computer picture and makes for a much clearer image. A golden eagle, for instance, can see a rabbit two miles away."

With 18 birds of prey - from DotCom, the tiny northern pygmy owl to Max the majestic golden eagle - to take care of year-round, Davis doesn't have much time to get away. That makes her feat of reaching more than 68,000 participants in 85 schools all the more miraculous.

One amenity that has aided the energetic educator in reaching school children is the 3.5-foot-by-2-foot-by-2-foot traveling trunk she devised to send to schools that are too far away to drive to. The lockable, hard-plastic trunks can be shipped anywhere in the state for less than $15 and contain intact birds, prepared by Davis and housed in clear Plexiglas cylinders, as well as wings, feathers, claws and beaks. Each trunk comes with a curriculum for the teacher as well as a checklist to ensure that all the items make it safely back home.

"Just like our live birds, these stuffed birds and bird parts require a permit (from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)," Davis said. "In addition to paying for the trunks the teachers are required to make sure everything gets back to us."

Raptors of the Rockies has two complete, self-service traveling trunks that are regularly shipped to Montana schools. Several years in the making, the trunks have been in use for little more than a year, Davis said, and help augment the effectiveness of the in person presentations.

"We'll keep doing the programs," she said, "but what I'm really excited abut are the trunks."

A recent advance in her organization's outreach program was borne at an educational meeting from an off-the-cuff remark by a high school principal. The comment resulted in a plane ride to Stanford where Davis gave a live-bird presentation to more than 200 students, teachers and parents. The trip to the rural, central-Montana town came about when its principal approached Davis about visiting his school.

"I said 'I'll go if you pick me up in an airplane and fly me out there," Davis recalled. "Right then a lady turned around and said 'I'll do it.'"

The lady just happened to be Jeanne MacPherson, chief of the Safety and Education Bureau for the State Department of Transportation, who's job involves flying around the state educating youth about airplane flight. MacPherson agreed to pick Davis up at the Stevensville airport and fly her and her birds straight to Stanford.

"We left in a fog with six birds, landed in the snow at Stanford, and gave an hour-long program to a very enthusiastic audience," Davis recalled. "It was so refreshing to give a presentation to people who had never seen the birds before."

Perhaps envying her birds, Davis said she has always wanted to learn to pilot a plane and for years has dreamed about using airplanes to service remote Montana towns. Meeting MacPherson fulfilled part of that goal, she said. "Jeanne was a dream come true," she said. "These birds can't leave the state, but now they can go to Plentywood."

But the single most effective way for Davis to accomplish her lifelong goal of educating people about raptors is the completion of her new book, she said, and finally seeing it hit the bookstore shelves is very gratifying

"This is something I've wanted to do since I was a little kid," Davis said, "but mostly since I started the program."

Though she started writing the original outlines in 1988, most of the real work in writing the book was done from her home during the fires of 2000, she said.

"While my husband was off fighting fires, I got out all my books on raptors and spread them on every available surface area in the house," she said. "Then I went from book to book getting every bit of information I could. I wanted to cover everything."

After a long summer of writing Davis enlisted the help of Ken Lockwood, a talented lay-out artist whom she had met while skiing at Snowbowl. From the beginning of their collaboration, the two agreed the wanted the book to be first-rate.

"Ken said 'let's put everything in color and let's do three pictures of everything," she said. "He and I literally did two or three pages at a time at Snowbowl on the chair lift."

When ski season ended Davis took the completed manuscript to John Rimel of Mountain Press Publishing Company in Missoula. After all the work she had put into the book, she feared he would reject it.

"I showed John draft one of this thing on a Friday," she recalled. "When I went back to him on Monday, he said, 'I think we'll print it.' I was so excited I tripped on my way out the door."

After Rimel read the entire manuscript he requested 32 more pages be added in order for the book to have to have a more perfect bind, Davis said. "You have to be able to read the name on the spine or the book'll be dead in the water."

So Davis and Lockwood included more amenities that, in retrospect, really complete the personality of the book. In addition to the comprehensive accounts of all 32 species of raptors found in the Rocky Mountains and the ecology and taxonomy of birds of prey, the two decided to create a "personal" biography on each of the 19 birds that have been a part of the wildly successful raptor program over the last 14 years.

"The bios tell silly things about the birds themselves," she said. "They each have such unique personalities and plenty of kids in the area know them by name."

Also presented in the book are hemispheric migration maps unique to each raptor species. The maps were prepared by Bob Petty of Montana Audubon and depict the flight paths and the seasonal ranges for each bird.

The bulk of "Raptors of the Rockies," however, comes form the heart and soul of the woman who created it. Davis took most of the 113 color photographs in the book, and her 15 drawings and etchings capture details of the birds that photos sometimes miss.

"One of the things I'm most proud of," she said, "is the glossary. I tried to make it as complete as possible. But the best thing about the book, in my mind, is John Craighead's review on the back cover. He's my all-time hero!" Craighead, founder and director of the Craighead Wildlife-Wildlands Institute, credits Davis with creating the book that he and his brother, Frank, conceived of nearly 60 years ago.

"Raptors of the Rockies has far surpassed even our enthusiastic vision for a concise, accurate, and informative guide to the birds of prey," he wrote. "It is the book we wanted to write, only much better."

Reporter Rod Daniel can be reached at 363-3300 or