Bob Anderson gave up everything to chase a dream and a bird that had entranced him since childhood.
After years of working at Minnesota-based 3M, he sold his house, quit his job and cashed in his retirement, all for the love of the peregrine falcon.
“He left everything he had to do what he did,” said Amy Ries, administrator at the Iowa Raptor Resource Project that Anderson founded. “He put it all on the line.”
A passionate conservationist who played a key role in restoring the Midwest’s peregrine falcon population, Anderson died July 27. He was 64.
Born in Minnesota to an accountant and a diesel mechanic, Anderson spent his childhood pursuing a fascination with the natural world.
“He would just take off in the morning and come back at dusk,” said younger sister JoAnn Anderson. “That was just his way. He loved the outdoors.”
Bob Anderson kept wild birds from a young age. He befriended local zookeeper Bob Duerr, who would send the teenager home with injured animals to care for.
In the early 1970s, Anderson began breeding peregrine falcons in captivity at a time when the science of it was still taking shape. The birds faced extinction throughout the United States and Canada, largely due to the widespread use of DDT. Used as a pesticide, the chemical poisoned adult birds and caused egg shells to thin.
Anderson, who was then working at 3M during the day, noticed that falcon eggs would crack when mother birds sat on them. He and others started to investigate, coming up with ways to safely fertilize and incubate the eggs at his Forest Lake home. To keep the fetal birds alive, Anderson would wake throughout the night to turn the eggs in their incubator, as a mother bird would do.
In the late 1980s, his most famous bird, a female called MF-1, became the first peregrine falcon in more than two decades to successfully reproduce in the Midwest.
Early on, many falcons bred in captivity were released in urban areas, taking up residence amid towering skyscrapers. But Anderson wanted to know how to get the birds to return to the cliffs where they’d nested historically.
He moved to Iowa in 1996, drawn by the limestone cliffs lining the Mississippi River. Holes were bored into the rock to hold steel rods that then held nest boxes, imprinting the place on young birds in the hope that they would one day return.
Falcons came “like moths to a light,” said Brett Mandernack, who worked alongside Anderson and now manages Wisconsin’s Eagle Valley Nature Preserve.
Around the same time, Anderson began collaborating with documentary filmmaker Neil Rettig. They and falconer Rob MacIntyre developed methods for attaching miniaturized cameras to raptors, offering an opportunity to ride along as they dove through the sky.
“I think he was really thrilled with the potential that film had for educating people,” Rettig said.
Cameras were used to monitor the nests of falcons and eagles, and footage of a Decorah, Iowa, eagle’s nest was broadcast online. It became a sensation that Anderson described as “bigger than Bob.”
“We were completely dumbfounded when suddenly 100,000 people were watching,” Ries said.
Letters from viewers began to arrive, JoAnn Anderson said. Teachers wrote of their students’ fascination. Nursing home employees wrote of the wonder stirred in those they cared for, the sudden purpose in the sick and elderly to get out of bed in the morning and watch the majestic birds.
Anderson was preceded in death by his parents and three sisters. He is survived by his fiancée Mary, son Jeremy and six siblings. Services have been held.