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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.

 Peregrine

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 (http://www.antiochne.edu/community/nature-based-leadership-institute/). Reach Steve at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

SustainAbility Newsletter Archive Article (random)

Critter of the Season - Big Cypress Fox Squirrel

Fox Squirrel

The Big Cypress Fox Squirrel is a species in decline through much of its former range.  While this critter is dwindling in numbers, it is commonly seen on golf courses, particularly in Southwest, Florida.  Some of the healthiest populations of the squirrel are to be found on the fairways and habitats of the links in Lee and Collier Counties, Florida.

The scientific name of the Big Cypress Fox Squirrel is Sciurus niger avicennia. The genus name Sciurus is from the Greek words skia (shadow) and oura (tail), a reference to the bushy tail which casts a shadow on the squirrel. The Latin species name niger (black) refers to the black color phase which is common in this species.
  
Common name
Fox squirrels may have earned their name from their gray and red fur coat that resemble that of a gray fox, from their comparatively large size and thick bushy tail, and/or from peculiar way of running along the ground which gives the appearance of a small fox.
  
Lifespan
Fox squirrels live from four to seven years of age on average in natural conditions. One individual lived to 18 years of age in captivity.
   
Home range
Ranges vary from 8-32 acres depending on habitat conditions. Fox squirrels have large overlapping home ranges and are non-territorial.
  
Geographic Range
Fox squirrels are found throughout most of Florida except in the Keys. There are three subspecies of fox squirrels in Florida. The Big Cypress Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger avicennia, is found from the Caloosahatchee River in Lee county south and then east to the southern part of Dade county. Sherman's Fox Squirrel, Sciurus niger shermani is found throughout most of the peninsula. The Carolina Fox Squirrel is found in the panhandle and northwards.
    
Contrary to two common names sometimes given to the Big Cypress Fox Squirrel -- Mangrove Fox Squirrel and Everglades Fox Squirrel -- it is not common in either mangrove or Everglades habitats. It is most common in open pinelands, live oak forests, and stands of bigger bald cypress.
Fox squirrels are found throughout the eastern and central United States, south into northern Mexico, and north into Canada. They have been introduced into urban areas in western North America as well.
  
Status
Big Cypress Fox Squirrel: threatened species
Sherman's Fox Squirrel: species of special concern
   
Habitat
Fox squirrels spend more time on the ground than gray squirrels and are slower moving. They forage for acorns, nuts, fruits, insects, mushrooms, buds and tubers, so they require habitats with an open understory. These include open pine flatwoods, sandhills, mixed pine-hardwood areas and rangeland interspersed with trees. In Florida, the fox squirrel may also be found in cypress stands and occasionally mangrove swamps.
Further north, fox squirrels are found in a diverse array of deciduous and mixed forest. Areas with a good variety of tree species are preferred due to variability in mast production.
   
Physical Characteristics
Fox squirrels weigh from one to three pounds, and exhibit color variations which range from a buff color to gray, and in some instances black. The under parts are usually lighter, and typical specimens have white noses with black faces and feet. They are noted for their long, bushy tails and for their strong hind legs which allows them to leap easily from place to place.
    
Fox squirrels have both a summer and winter coat, and therefore molt twice each year. The spring molt begins in March and may last for weeks, left, whereas the autumn molt begins in September. But the tail only molts once each year during the summer.
   
Fox squirrels have four sets of whiskers located above and below the eyes, on the underside of the head in front of the throat, and on the nose. Whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are touch receptors that provide the animal with information about its immediate surroundings.
   
Fox squirrels have very good eyesight even in dim light, and a wide field of vision. They also have a well developed sense of smell and hearing.
The skull of the fox squirrel has 20 teeth (gray squirrels have 22 teeth). Squirrels have upper and lower incisor teeth followed by a gap called a diastema. The diastema is where the canine teeth would normally be found in carnivorous animals such as cats or dogs, or omnivorous animals such as monkeys. Behind the diastema are the cheek or grinding teeth which consist of premolars and molars.
   
As with other rodent species, the incisors continuously grow to compensate for the enormous amount of wear that comes from a herbivorous diet.
Young squirrels have milk teeth which are replaced by permanent teeth when they are between six and twelve months old.
  
Fox squirrels are highly adapted for climbing trees and fatal falls are rare. Adaptations for climbing include sharp recurved claws, well developed extensors of digits and flexors of forearms, and abdominal musculature.
 
Tails are used for balance when running and leaping between trees, and held over the back of a resting animal.
    


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References and Sources used in this issue of SustainAbility Newsletter Include:
Audubon Lifestyles
www.audubonlifestyles.org 
  
The International Sustainability Council
www.thesustainabilitycouncil.org 

Toyota
www.toyota.com

Ford Motors
www.ford.com

Girl Scouts of America
www.girlscouts.org

Austin Ranch
www.austinranch.com

Turf Feeding Systems
www.turffeeding.com

The University of Michigan
www.umich.edu

The Dodson Group
www.thedodsongrp.com      

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