Sept. 10, 2004

Dear Barry ... I wanted to give you this message – Aside from my mom and dad, you have been the most important person in my life, and nearly everything I do, every day, is because of your influence starting 30 years ago.

FLORENCE – It’s one of those sun-filled, late-winter mornings that can make you think spring might just be around the corner.

Kate Davis has just finished climbing an ice-covered hillside onto a wide open meadow west of Florence.

Right now, she’s scanning the snow-covered cliffs of the Bitterroot Mountains in hope of spotting a likely place for a peregrine falcon nest that she can explore later on this year.

“There’s a peregrine in almost every drainage here now,” she said, as her eyes lock onto her own falcon that’s gliding effortlessly toward her just a few feet off the open meadow.

She calls the bird Sibley, and today it is enjoying tormenting the family’s black Labrador retriever.

“Stop it, you two,” Davis yells half-heartedly as the dog leaps into the air as Sibley banks hard left.

Davis looks back to the mountains and smiles.

“I know right now there are 12 peregrine nests in the Bitterroots now,” she said. “That’s incredible when you consider there were none before 1982. This place has become a peregrine mecca. It’s an amazing story.”

And, just one of many stories about birds of prey that Davis has shared with thousands of people around the country over the past quarter-century since she first founded Raptors of the Rockies.

It’s been 11 years now since Davis moved her residence and aviaries to a 10-acre place just outside of Florence.

“Our neighbors didn’t really know what to think when we first moved in,” she said. “We were building all these enclosures and working kind of late into the night. They thought at first that we might be goat farmers and then they worried that we were setting up a puppy mill.”

When the neighbors finally learned that all varieties of eagles, hawks, falcons and owls would be filling the cages next door, there was a general sigh of relief.

Scattered across her yard are sculptures of different bird life welded from iron.

“Bill Ohrmann taught me how to do these,” Davis said, as she pulls the topknot off a rusty owl and peers inside. “I saw this big elephant that he had created and decided to stop by his house and see him.”

Within a few minutes, she had a cutting torch in hand and was learning the trade.

“I used to have a garage,” Davis said. “Now I have a welding studio.”

That’s been the driving story of Davis’ life.

The right people have always been there at the right time.

It began when she was 13 years old with a plastic badge and man with a deep-seated drive to teach youngsters to celebrate nature.

That was the year Barry Wakeman handed her a badge that identified her as a member of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Junior Zoologist Club.

Even today, Davis can remember not being able to sleep on Friday nights in anticipation of what Saturdays at the zoo would bring.

“It was an amazing experience,” Davis said. “Barry molded all of us kids. He trusted us. He gave us responsibility and through all of that, he opened a whole new world to all of us.”

When that door opened and Davis stepped through, she found a whole group of others willing to help guide her steps.

“Certain people are so influential in our lives,” said Davis. “I’ve been fortunate that so many have helped me find my way.”

As a girl, she read Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain,” about a boy lost in the woods who has a pet peregrine falcon, and she set her sights on becoming a falconer one day.

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As a junior zoologist, she heard Montana’s famous grizzly bear biologist, John Craighead, talk about his studies in this state. Even though none of her family had ever been to Montana, she decided that day that Missoula was the place where she would go to college.

A few years ago, when the strain of hundreds of programs was making her wonder if this course was the right one, singer/songwriter Bill Harley reminded her to have fun during her presentations.

“I don’t think this all would have happened without all the people who have been there to help me,” she said.

Davis has 18 birds at her Florence home right now.

Many of them came to her by way of Stevensville bird rehabilitation expert Judy Hoy.

“Most of these birds suffered some form of permanent disability that would have killed them if Judy hadn’t intervened,” Davis said.

As she steps inside each enclosure to feed the birds dead mice from a local laboratory, Davis is quick to point out the ones she calls “Judy miracles.”

In particular, there’s the redtail hawk that was blind when Hoy first took it in. With homeopathic remedies and long hours of care, the bird retained some of its sight.

“This one definitely is a Judy miracle,” Davis said.

Davis wants people to know that she’s not in the business of rehabilitating injured birds of prey. Her permits allow her to keep her birds only if they are used for education.

The permits also require her to keep a close count on how many people hear her programs.

The numbers are nothing short of remarkable.

Over the past 24 years, Davis has brought her team of eagles, hawks, falcons and owls before more than 115,000 youngsters and adults.

Each and every one of them learned to hoot like an owl.

“Everybody who attends one of my programs gets to hoot like an owl,” Davis said. “I remember one program in Boston where I thought I might be pushing my luck to ask that.”

She wasn’t sure how that crowd might react when she told the women to push their voices a little deeper and the men to go up an octave when they imitated the bird.

“Here I was in this auditorium filled with adults going hoot, hoot, hoot,” she said, with a wide grin. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

Davis said the goal of her program is to get people outside with a new appreciation of what they’ll find there.

“I try to encourage kids to go hoot up a barn owl,” she said. “That’s how I got started. Barry taught me that you don’t talk down to kids. You talk to them like they are adults and they’ll respond to that.”

“I hope that I can encourage them to follow their hearts,” she said. “I don’t know how many people Barry Wakeman touched over the years that he ran the junior zoologist program but I do know the difference he made in my life.

I hope that I am carrying on that legacy.”

In September 2004, Davis learned that Wakeman was ailing, so she sat down and wrote a letter to her long-ago mentor.

“He read the letter out loud to his family. Later on that same day, he passed away,” she said. “I was so happy that I was able to tell him what he meant to me.”

Along with her letter, Davis enclosed a copy of her first book with a review on its back cover by John Craighead.

“You took a bunch of us to a lecture he gave and that was where I wanted to go to college. I often tell that story, about how you and John Craighead together are responsible for this whole life that I lead, along with all of our birds. So, I want to thank you, more than I can express in words, for your influence as a kid, and inspiration from afar.”

– from Davis’ letter.

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.