Broadcast Audubon

The Peregrine Falcon

By: Steve Jones   ©2016 (SJones)

Photo Credits: Peregrine on the ledge by Steve Jones

                     Peregrine wing-spread by National Geographic 

Totems, omens, signs, talismans – what do they mean? Do they help or hinder? Do they comfort or bode ill? Do they have a place in guiding or illuminating decision making or leadership? Do they introduce yet another set of leadership lessons from nature? Perhaps so; maybe not. I cannot definitively answer those questions, yet I can reflect from a personal experience when such a “sign” appeared to me, and how I sought insight and wisdom (and perhaps solace) from it.

It’s been some time now, although the memory is vivid and lasting. I had arrived early for an airport hotel interview within sight of Atlanta’s Hartsfield. In fact, I had four hours to kill. Forced to book either a flight leaving no cushion between arriving and the scheduled interview, and arriving earlier with a much longer, I chose the latter. I don’t do well with cutting it close, so there I was. Fortunately, I had a special frequent-guest relationship with that hotel chain – they permitted me access to the executive lounge on the 17th floor.

A major winter storm now spinning off the New Jersey coast had powered through the Southeastern USA the night before my morning arrival. The night’s rain had transitioned to snow before tapering, leaving a few patches on grass where it had stuck. Now on the storm’s backside, punishing northwest winds carried flurries and occasional snow showers, an unusual sight there in Atlanta, even in mid-January.

I had just missed a departing hotel shuttle at the terminal. Standing in the horizontal snow flurries, I found buffer from the wind in one of those three-sided glass bus shelters. My suit jacket interview garb made the 15-minute wait seem much longer. A strong bus heater and subsequent delivery to the hotel entrance warmed my body. However, I felt a bit cold mentally and emotionally to the entire idea of being there. I already had a good job, with much yet to accomplish. Sure, I had hit a rough professional spot. Judy, my wife of decades, had said, “The time is not right. The potential position is not right for you/us.” I was in Atlanta anyway, against her better judgment and instincts, which over many years had served us well.

The executive lounge looked south from the 17th floor. FedEx’s Atlanta operations spread out beneath us, the commercial airport beyond that. I could hear and feel the wind swirling around the building, even on this sheltered lee side. Making myself at home, I pulled out the laptop, secured connectivity, and went about Steves Peregrineconducting the business of the university that employed me, occasionally revisiting my notes and background materials for the interview. Peripherally, I noticed a fellow lounge occupant near the window, camera in hand. I rose to see the object of her attention. There on the 17th floor window ledge (perhaps eight inches wide) stood a peregrine falcon. From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site, “Powerful and fast-flying, the Peregrine Falcon hunts medium-sized birds, dropping down on them from high above in a spectacular stoop. They were virtually eradicated from eastern North America by pesticide poisoning in the middle 20th century. After significant recovery efforts, Peregrine Falcons have made an incredible rebound and are now regularly seen in many large cities and coastal areas.”

The morning gale had obviously buffeted my window ledge falcon! Although now somewhat protected, feathers still in disarray, the bird evidenced its wind-bludgeoning.

My dominant initial impression of the bird, within arm’s length beyond the glass, filtered through my own lens as an unabashed champion of accipiter species and other birds of prey, amounted to wonder, awe, beauty, and inspiration. I did not contemplate its ruffled feathers at first, only marveled that this incredible bird had suddenly appeared on such a blustery morning on my 17th floor ledge! Only later when viewing peregrine photos on line did I truly appreciate how bedraggled this one looked.

Regardless, I leaped to find meaning in its visit. Wikipedia at hand, I learned that peregrine comes from the Latin for wanderer. That was perfect; my own career has found me wandering. This potential new gig would entail additional wandering. It’s a positive sign, I imagined and rationalized. The peregrine is signaling that this is the right move; that the time is now; that I belong here awaiting a 90-minute interview. How could the peregrine be wrong? But the Latin is not enough alone. I next discovered that the peregrine is an “animal totem that brings higher wisdom and greater knowledge to deal with personal dilemmas.” There, that’s the mother lode of omen evidence, right?! This new position, I reasoned, is meant to be, predestined, a foregone conclusion.

I watched the falcon now and again for more than an hour, convinced that I was reading the message correctly. Eventually as I watched, the bird looked away and, with wings open, slipped gracefully from the ledge and dipped below my line of sight, and did not reappear. I felt blessed to receive and interpret the powerful totem. Truth be told, I sensed greater blessing and pleasure having simply been there to see the peregrine up close and personal. I knew the species had adapted to urban high-rise life, and had acquired a taste for European pigeon cuisine, fresh off the wing. Perhaps a pigeon below had prompted the bird to leave me behind.

I appreciated my 90-minute interview. There is no better way than preparing for such an interview to learn at depth about another institution. Seventeen members of that university’s committed community grilled me, but not unpleasantly. I answered questions as well as I could. Not once did I think, “Oh God, why did I answer it that way – I could have done so much better?” I even found a way to work the falcon into a response. Perhaps that is why a week later the search firm called to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I accepted that notification with sincere relief. Judy was right about the position at that point in our lives. By then I had even re-interpreted the peregrine sighting. The falcon did not appear to me in its regal form, an exquisite work of art. For goodness sakes, the bird presented itself with ruffled feathers, wind-whipped and battered. It appeared in an act of escape – seeking shelter from the morning’s unpleasant, even tumultuous conditions. Perhaps that is why I appeared in Atlanta that morning, seeking shelter from some unpleasant weather. Perhaps the bird employed its own poor judgment when it lifted from its overnight perch, and found itself tossed in stormy skies until the building offered refuge.

I misread the wind-bludgeoned bird, seeing only a positive interpretation. I reached the wrong conclusion. The peregrine carried a message I failed to see, expressing instead, “Beware of these wanderings, especially given the conditions that prevail within your decision framework.” The bird was saying, “Look at me. See how foolish I have been. I ventured forth this morning when I should have stayed home. I’m fortunate to have found shelter.”

In all honesty, I do not normally look for premonitions from nature. Instead, I seek lessons from nature. Obviously, the peregrine did not signal an interview outcome. Instead, the bird prompted me to think deeply. Like the falcon, I had ventured out during a period of less than favorable conditions. I was casting for another position that would have been akin to finding temporary respite from ill winds on a precarious perch 17 stories into the torrent. I was looking to escape something, and not consciously reaching with positive purpose. Escaping is only part of completing the equation. A purposeful journey takes us to something, not just away. I violated that cardinal rule of career rationality. My Mother used to caution us, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.”

I still ponder that juncture in my life. Had they offered me a finalist interview on-campus, would I have gone? I think my relief suggests that I had already made up my mind. Or did I? They did not test me with an invitation. Nor had I called to withdraw my candidacy before they rejected me. Even with the benefit of a long look backward, I am still not entirely sure whether I would have gone through with a campus interview. Perhaps I do not need to know how I would have responded. We all have second-guessed other people’s decisions. Here I am questioning my own decision – ironically, one I never had the chance to make. Leadership is about examining self, and learning from it. Looking back is a natural part of that essential introspection, so long as we focus mainly on what lies ahead. As with all other major decisions along the way, I am not wishing for a redo.

I reminded myself that mine had not been a life and death decision; shoot, it turned out not to be a decision at all! In contrast, a peregrine may not get a second chance to make up for poor judgment. I lost nothing from venturing to Atlanta for a rich learning experience. Sure, I invested a few days in preparing for the interview, and in traveling to and from. The key word is “invested.” The trip paid dividends in understanding another university, meeting some very impressive people, and in knowing myself better. Interestingly, as a hopeful candidate I found promise in nature’s totem; as a rejected semi-finalist, I found comfort in a different interpretation. That alone served to remind me that nature often furnishes varying frames of reference, and an interpretation filter for our choosing.

So, what was my nature based leadership lesson? I puzzle a bit over whether NBL is best characterized as employing lessons drawn from nature. This discussion of totems and talismans, I believe, adds credence to the alternative (or complementary) notion that NBL is more about deriving lessons inspired by nature. Perhaps that distinction is not important. It is nature in either case that spurs the thinking that enriches our daily living, learning, serving, and leading. Think how dull my four-hour wait could have been. Consider what stimuli I would have missed had I simply looked out the window to see a bird on a ledge, and nothing more. Contemplate how uninspiring the trip would have been if I had not paid attention to the retreating storm and the howling winds it brought to Atlanta on its backside.

Nature based leadership, as I preach to anyone who will listen, enables and inspires us to pay attention, to actually look hard at what surrounds us every minute of every day. Unless we look, we will not see. We will especially not see what everyday blindness to our world hides from far too many, even when in plain sight. And unless we truly see, life and living will never evoke feelings deeply enough to spur us to action. Action, which in the 1859 words of Antioch’s founding president Horace Mann, leads to making a difference for today and tomorrow, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

Nature is a portal through which I view all that life comprises. Nature nurtures my soul, enriches my mind, commands my heart, fuels my body, and lifts my spirit. I enjoyed toying with the idea of peregrine as talisman and totem. Most importantly, I found solace that this daring bird of prey, this thing of wild beauty, this symbol of nature’s fury and mastery, had alighted on a 17th story ledge during that brief period when I was wrestling with a personal and professional dilemma, and at a time when a mid-Atlantic coastal storm had ushered some rough weather into the Southland. The mix allowed me to look deeply into urban wildness and its temporal intersection with me and my inner self. I see more clearly through the filter and magnification of Nature’s lenses. I am grateful for every opportunity I have to look, see, feel, and act. A lesson in, or one inspired by nature? I accept either, with deep appreciation for yet another chance to live, learn, and grow.


About the Author: Steve’s PhD is in Natural Resources Management (1987). He practiced forestry in the southern forest products industry for a dozen years prior to pursuing his doctorate. He has since served eight universities, including three as CEO (2004-present). He is currently President, Antioch University New England (AUNE). He also chaired the Governing Board of the University of the Arctic 2005-08. Steve believes that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or inspired compellingly by nature. Steve co-created AUNE’s Nature Based Leadership Institute in 2015 ( Reach Steve at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


SustainAbility Newsletter Archive Article (random)

The Nature of Sustainability | Walking the Talk on Campus

Urbana University

by Steve Jones Ph.D. 

Urbana University is a small, faith-affiliated, private liberal arts university in west-central Ohio. I’ve been President here since July 2008; prior to that I served as Chancellor, University of Alaska Fairbanks for four years. I’m a forester and natural resources practitioner and scientist by training and a university CEO by chance. You’ve seen my previous SustainAbility columns in Fall 2010 and Summer 2011.

I believe that Urbana University’s rural and agrarian setting, its spacious 128-acre campus, a heritage that ties John Chapman (AKA Johnny Appleseed) to the founding of the University, and a sweeping international tide of interest in sustainability compel Urbana University to “walk the talk” of sustainability. Urbana University is the first campus chartered by the International Sustainability Council. We are the nation’s first Bird Campus USA, designated by Audubon Lifestyles. We are applying for designation as Tree Campus USA to the Arbor Day Foundation.

The Fall 2010 column speaks to Urbana’s intent to walk the talk of sustainability across four dimensions:

  • Campus “built” environment and immediate grounds
  • Campus “natural” spaces and associated “wild” environment
  • Curriculum
  • Individual well-being

We have major plans for addressing the built environment and immediate grounds – watch for updates in a subsequent column. The University’s curricular plans (number three above) include weaving the threads of ecological literacy and free enterprise-based sustainability into our liberal arts core. We are developing majors in environmental studies, environmental education, and leadership in sustainability. With restricted, donated funds we hired a new faculty member (a soil scientist) in July 2011 to lead our sustainability efforts. Again, watch for updates for curricular action and for developments in individual well-being.
Assisted by a 2009 (and continuing) grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service we are converting approximately 25 acres of previously mowed grass to native prairie (12 acres), oak savanna (eight acres), and closed canopy native cover (five acres). The prairie just completed its second growing season. The conversion has not gone smoothly, requiring repeated, targeted herbicide applications and reseeding. Non-native species held a strangle-hold on the site, with tremendous competition and plentiful seed reserves in the soil. The 2011 summer weather likewise did not cooperate. Six weeks parched our region in mid-growing season, punctuating a very wet spring and record fall rains (combined for the wettest year ever). Although we’re still not fully satisfied, we see the prairie community effectively colonizing the site. We plan a controlled burn in 2012 to assure total site capture.
Our partially shaded and full-canopy cover conversions have fought against the same forces of stubborn residual vegetation, heavy seed bank, and uncooperative weather, necessitating repeated and continuing treatments. Again, we’re seeing progress. The recalcitrant transition to native vegetation created a secondary problem – explaining to the University community (faculty, staff, students, and visitors) why the campus has large areas of dead grass and sparse vegetation! Because we are a bare-bones operation, we have not invested resources in large interpretive signage. We want the final signage to interpret what we’ve done, and not explain what we are doing.

We have three campus catchment basins, two small constructed basins to hold runoff from road and parking lot surfaces, slowing release to prevent surges to an off-campus, urban stream. We’re converting mowed grass in both depressions to native species. The third area (also constructed) covers nearly 1.5 acres at the far southwest corner of campus at the edge of our prairie. Even during the parched mid-summer the large basin held more than a quarter acre of water, a permanent pond. During the wet fall the pond expanded to well over an acre. The large basin is dominated by native wetland vegetation that captured the site prior to the prairie conversion. Small fish, lots of frogs, and other wetland fauna complete the community.
We’ve tried to make clear that we are establishing a living/learning laboratory and classroom on campus. We will create a prairie trail (mowed pathway), construct a catchment basin boardwalk crossing, and build a 12 foot observation deck above the prairie, providing and encouraging access to and understanding of this exciting habitat. The observation deck will be within full view of our football stadium, band practice field, and gymnasium; our natural areas are integral to (not unique from) our campus. We also have plans for our 15 acres of closed forest, including elimination of an obnoxious invasion of Asian shrub honeysuckle, dominating the understory to a height of 10-12 feet and shading most native forest floor species.
We have a lot more planned for sustainability at Urbana University. Among our active pursuits is establishing a full-range renewable energy demonstration: solar photovoltaic; solar thermal; geothermal; wind; anaerobic digester. We’re also planning to implement recommendations from a comprehensive energy audit. Watch for more as we get off our duffs and walk the talk of sustainability!




References and Sources used in this issue of SustainAbility Newsletter Include:

Audubon Lifestyles 
The International Sustainability Council 

Sustainability Campaign

Ford Motor Company

Urbana University

Defenders of Wildlife

The Earthday Network

Bloomberg Businessweek

Small Busienss Trends

The Dodson Group      

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A Coalition for Good - Spreading the Seeds of Sustainability

ISC-Audubon is a coalition of non-profit organizations and initiatives that include The International Sustainability Council (ISC), Audubon Lifestyles, Audubon Outdoors, Planit Green, Broadcast Audubon, and the Audubon Network for Sustainability. 

Funds generated through memberships and donations are used to provide fruit & vegetable seeds, wildflower seed mix, and wildlife feed & birdseed to urban and suburban communities around the world. These seeds are used by communities to establish fruit and vegetable gardens, bird and wildlife sanctuaries, and for the beautification of urban and suburban landscapes by creating flower and native plant gardens.

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