Some of life’s most magical moments come about when one is brought into close contact with the natural world. One such happened for me a long time ago, in a classroom at SUNY-New Paltz, when I was invited to stroke the impossibly soft feathers of a live owl. Normally, when raptor rehabilitators are displaying their avian charges in public, it’s a look-don’t-touch arrangement. But Dr. Heinz Meng – news of whose death spread quickly last weekend – was the sort of educator who wanted students to acquire a visceral, hands-on appreciation for how owls are able to fly so silently that their rodent prey never know what hit them.
In the 65 years since a young man fresh out of Cornell with a PhD in Ornithology joined the Biology Department faculty at SUNY-New Paltz, plenty of us have had our own opportunities to collect Heinz Meng stories, and quite a few were inspired to take up careers in the life sciences after working with him. In his field, Dr. Meng became a legend: the first scientist to breed peregrine falcons in captivity, which many experts had thought couldn’t be done. By 1971 he was providing prolific breeding stock, which had been wiped out by DDT, to colleagues at Cornell’s famed Lab of Ornithology. Those birds’ progeny went on to repopulate the peregrine falcon habitats of the Northeast and beyond.
Dr. Meng’s release experiments atop the New Paltz Faculty Tower in the mid-’70s were among the first attempts at “hacking” peregrines back into the wild. There were heartbreaks, as birds turned up dead or missing, presumably mistaken for pest predators. But in time, falcon pairs began nesting successfully along the rocky Shawangunk escarpment; and now, one of the greatest thrills of hiking the Ridge is watching these fastest birds on Earth dive past you. Descendants of Dr. Meng’s falcon chicks hunt pigeons from Manhattan skyscrapers; each year you can watch their eggs hatch from a “naturecam” atop the Mid-Hudson Bridge.
Eventually the Audubon Society cited Dr. Meng as one of the 100 “Champions of Conservation” who had shaped the 20th-century environmental movement. He even got a mention – a real person amidst a cast of fictional characters – in one of Jean Craighead George’s classic My Side of the Mountain series of novels, about a boy who shares a subsistence living in the Catskills with an adopted falcon named Frightful. Those of Meng’s rehabilitated raptors that couldn’t be returned to the wild became ambassadors to schools throughout the region, and sometimes appeared in plays, movies, TV shows and operas. He mentored hobbyist falconers in safe bird handling and care, attaining such worldwide renown for his expertise that he was once visited by a Middle Eastern prince (whose intended live gifts of Old World hunting hawks were confiscated by US Customs officials at the airport).
To the world, Heinz Meng was an environmental rock star. To Paltzonians, he was a friendly, approachable guy in a goofy hat who loved to hike and fly-fish and bow-hunt and talk about nature. He played the violin, did wildlife photography and painted wonderful portraits of falcons and other birds. He and his wife Elizabeth – widely known as Sunny – raised their two children in New Paltz and were active in the community. And if you took the short cut through the woods from the Cherry Hill neighborhood to downtown that passed alongside their yard, where an assortment of raptors would eyeball you skeptically from their tree-stump perches, the Mengs didn’t seem to mind. They wanted everyone to enjoy nature as much as they did.
It’s a great loss to the community as well as the scientific world, and the end of an era laden with magical moments for so many.