The Brothers Wild

By Vicki Constantine Croke
Sunday, November 11, 2007

IT IS THE MID-1960S -- A WARM, SUNNY DAY AT YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, where a 500-pound male grizzly bear known as No. 36 is slumped in a drug-induced haze. Even flattened by tranquilizers, the big bear dwarfs the four researchers in Western-style clothing who are racing the clock to pull every piece of data they can from him -- weighing him, taking blood samples, checking his teeth. He grows larger still when he awakens suddenly with a shattering roar. Groaning, groggy and gladiatorial, the bear rises and charges blindly at the members of the group, who scramble into their red Ford station wagon. In a dizzy rage, the bear barrels like a bristling, fanged locomotive toward the packed car, running straight into the passenger door and then heaving himself onto the hood, his head seeming to fill the entire windshield. As the animal bellows again, the car is jammed almost cartoonishly into reverse, and the big, disoriented bear slides off.

To aficionados of National Geographic documentaries, the scene is one of the most popular in the organization's ample, thrill-filled archives. It is also a small taste of the action-packed and intertwined lives of a set of identical twins and grizzly research partners, John and Frank Craighead. The brothers were dashing, handsome, intrepid, scientifically minded and athletically built, and are best known in conservation circles for their groundbreaking 12-year study of grizzlies in Yellowstone.

Beyond the appeal of their adventurous lives, several factors have made the Craigheads eco-idols: their serious and sometimes controversial battles to save the grizzly, their prescient efforts to protect American rivers and their forward thinking on ecosystems. In 1998, the Audubon Society named the twins among the top 100 figures in conservation of the 20th century. And this year's delisting from the federal Endangered Species Act of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone is a direct ripple effect of their legacy (the Craighead family, however, thinks the change in status is premature). Yet today, the brothers seem little known outside the realm of well-versed naturalists.

Frank died of Parkinson's disease in 2001 at the age of 85. John, now 91, lives in Missoula, Mont. He writes poetry and sketches, mostly animals. He likes to get down in the dirt of his garden and weed. And several times a week, his son John takes him to an indoor pool for a swim. On an airless day, with the temperature hitting 100 degrees, I pulled up to the modest beige Western-ranch-style home John and wife Margaret have lived in for the past 50 years. A rehabilitated raven named Rudy, shaggy, jet-black and as big as a hawk, is lurking in the shade of the Ponderosa pines by the back door. Inside, spectacular close-up photographs that the Craighead twins took for National Geographic line the walls, along with snowshoes, the head of a mountain goat and, on the coffee table, a bronze cast of a massive grizzly paw.

John wears a headband Native American-style across his forehead to keep the wisps of gray hair out of his blue eyes. He is almost totally deaf, but he is still fit, and his smile -- at once shy and mischievous -- is instantly recognizable from the old documentaries. It was clear as he spoke that the lifetime of adventure and deep connection that he shared with his brother were never far from his mind.

THERE IS A RICH ARCHIVE OF CRAIGHEAD MATERIAL -- NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ARTICLES AND DOCUMENTARIES; books the men wrote, such as Hawks in the Hand from 1939 or Track of the Grizzly from 1979; journal entries from their studies; and piles of books on grizzlies that cite their work. But for the brothers, it all started with a baby barred owl. The Craighead boys were only about 10 or 12, by John's count, and inseparable -- with people hailing them usually not by name, but by "Hey, Twin!" The twinned identity issue went deep with the boys themselves. So deep, in fact, that sister Jean Craighead George (author of My Side of the Mountain among many other award-winning children's books), recalls that Frank and John always used the personal pronoun "I" instead of "we" when referring to the two of themselves. They grew up in Chevy Chase, and had spent one weekend day as they often did -- on a long hike along the Potomac with their entomologist father, who was a walking field guide to plants, bugs and animals.

It was May, evening was falling, and John remembers that he didn't have much more on his mind than the waiting dinner of roast beef and his mother's special orange pudding as he trudged homeward. But an owl silently flew overhead. And near an old sycamore, their father pointed out a pellet (owls eat prey animals whole and then burp up the inedible parts -- hair and bones). Most likely there was a nest with young there, Frank Sr. said. The boys were suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to capture an owlet, and John scrambled up the sycamore, despite a lack of equipment and their father's disapproval. Soon after, the boys came home with their first baby owl. And from that moment forward, John says, "we were sold on nature."

There were many birds after that -- peregrines, prairie falcons, kestrels, Cooper's hawks.

As soon as they had equipped themselves with clothesline rope and a pair of climbing spurs from a telephone lineman, no nest near the Potomac -- in a cliff or tree -- was beyond the grasp of these star varsity wrestlers. Of course, their pursuits led to many scrapes. Once, Frank was attacked by a mother goshawk as he checked her nest high up in a pine tree; she struck him several times in the chest and hand. Often enough, the boys had their hands ripped open by dirty talons, which often led to infection. Boulders rained down on them during climbs. Ropes broke. And swift currents carried them away. As would become a lifelong trait, the boys shrugged off their brushes with danger. Another time, someone noticed them on a cliff along the Potomac and sent for help. Not usually a nervous climber, John began to feel a little spooked by the sight of the waiting emergency vehicle. Frank reassured him: "To heck with them. If we fall, a broom is what they need, not an ambulance." They learned from an old National Geographic article and from the birds themselves the ancient skill of falconry. They would capture young hawks from nests and feed them starlings, sparrows, mice and lean beef. With gloved hands, they carried the birds around the house to habituate them. Holding out bits of meat, they would patiently teach the birds to fly to their gloved hands, increasing the distance little by little, until the birds could be taken outside.

They hunted the raptors outdoors, setting them off after pigeons or crows. The results were beyond expectation. "We do not worry whether they will return to our outstretched hands," they wrote. "We know they will." And, without exception, the Craigheads gave the birds their freedom, usually after a single season, though several elected to stay. The twins mended the tails of birds who had lost or broken feathers by painlessly reconstructing, or imping in, new ones. They used needles and glue for the task, and often borrowed the replacement feathers from other birds (startlingly enough, a crow's tail substituting for the missing one of a Cooper's hawk, for instance).

Their intimacy with the bird world would yield information found nowhere else. They determined distinguishing character traits among birds of prey -- unlike other hawks, for instance, Cooper's hawks are reluctant to visit their nests if humans are nearby. So sure and pioneering were their observations that the Craigheads would impress the editors at National Geographic Magazine when they were only 19, writing the article "Adventures With Birds of Prey," which would eventually be published in the July 1937 issue. That would be the start of a long association with National Geographic, with many more articles and TV documentaries to come.

They would spend a lifetime crafting love poems -- but poems in the form of field reports, population graphs and behavior analyses. Their passion for animals was expressed in methodical, meticulous study -- practical, but also sometimes sentimental.

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