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Poly alumnus who helped falcons’ recovery dies

Brian James Walton, a Cal Poly alumnus whose work helped rescue the peregrine falcon from extinction, died in a Santa Cruz hospital June 15 after a stroke. He was 55.

Walton began his research on the endangered birds in Morro Bay in 1970 and went on to become a founding member of the Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz. He received international recognition for his expertise in bird wildlife preservation and captive breeding. As the organization’s sole coordinator for 31 years, Walton

managed captive breeding lab programs and successfully raised funds. The peregrine falcon’s endangered status is attributed to the use of the now-banned pesticide DDT in the mid-20th century. The chemicals accumulated in the birds’ tissues and led to falcons laying eggs with thin shells that often broke during incubation. As a result, too few young survived to replace the adults that died. Walton’s captive breeding and research efforts aimed to replenish the peregrine population.

“Through his leadership, he helped speed the recovery of the peregrine falcon from near-extinction in the West,” said field biologist Brian Latta, who worked under Walton.

Walton promoted “soft release,” in which scientists take laboratory-hatched chicks into the wild and provide the birds with food as they learn to hunt. This method allows researchers to “release birds into the wild without having parents to teach them and train them,” Latta said.

Walton discovered this passion for wildlife growing up in California, where his family moved a year after his birth in McKeesport, Pa., in 1951. While attending high school in Redondo Beach, Walton joined the bird-interest club and collected a variety of wild birds himself. Geese, quail and sparrow hawks were just a few of the birds he raised in his family’s backyard for release into the wild, said his brother, Ron Walton.

“It wasn’t your typical L.A. beach community backyard,” Ron Walton said.

While earning his bachelor’s degree in biology at Cal Poly in 1973, Brian Walton developed a fascination with the endangered peregrine falcon, one of the fastest animals on the planet— when swooping down to hunt, the peregrine can reach a speed of 200 miles per hour. For a research survey of peregrine falcons in 1970, Walton began visiting Morro Rock to watch one of two known nesting pairs of peregrines in the state, his brother said.

Walton went on to receive his master’s degree in biology from San Jose State University in 1978 and become coordinator of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group.

An avid baseball fan, Walton coached Little League and the junior varsity team at Santa Cruz High School. His son Neil grew up in those programs, moved on to play for Cal State Fullerton and is now a shortstop in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays minor league system.

In addition to his brother and son, Walton is survived by his wife, Holly Fuertado; his daughter, Elle; his stepson Peter; stepdaughters Fallon and Katie; and his father, James.

A public memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday on the Santa Cruz High School baseball field. In lieu of flowers, the public can donate to the Brian James Walton Memorial Fund, 849 Almar Ave., Suite C, Box 332, Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

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