It’s great to be in a class,” says one of Heinz Meng’s students, “where things fly around the room.” Meng’s specialty is not levitation, nor does he hurl erasers at recalcitrant pupils. The flying objects are peregrine falcons, and the course is Introduction to Ornithology.
“The peregrine is nature’s masterpiece,” declares Meng, 55, professor of biology at the New Paltz campus of the State University of New York. If so, the professor’s life is aflutter with feathered Rembrandts and van Goghs, since 18 of the swift birds of prey now reside in his backyard aviary. Among falconers, Meng has achieved a worldwide reputation. Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid met with the professor in 1968, though his intended gifts of a falcon and an Asiatic peregrine were waylaid by customs officials. Now Meng is teaching Kate Mulgrew, television’s Mrs. Columbo, how to handle falcons for her first movie, Tristan and Isolde.
Once common throughout the U.S., peregrine falcons have been scarce since the ’50s, when their reproductive powers were destroyed by pesticides. The birds were placed on the endangered list in 1968. Aroused by their plight, Meng managed to breed two peregrines from British Columbia and nursed the chicks himself in the kitchen. “Falconers thought I was nuts,” he admits. “No one in America had ever successfully bred peregrines.” He even trained them to hunt pigeons. The professor released the first pair of fledglings—appropriately named Adam and Eve—from a Meng-made aerie atop the New Paltz faculty building in 1974. Though Eve was later shot, Meng has since freed several dozen falcons in a unique effort to restock the wilderness.
Born in Germany, Meng came to the U.S. with his family just 10 months before the stock market crash of 1929. His father, once a well-to-do banker, was reduced to chauffeuring on the J. C. Penney estate outside New York, while Heinz’s mother became a cook. Meng’s fascination with the world’s fastest bird (its headlong dives to snatch prey have been timed at roughly 200 miles an hour) dates back to a day in 1941 when he was surf casting on Long Island and surprised a peregrine lunching on a sparrow hawk. The teenager captured the falcon by wrapping it in his windbreaker. “When you love something,” explains Meng, “you want to have it.”
After majoring in ornithology at Cornell, he went on to obtain his Ph.D., and arrived at New Paltz in 1951. There he met his future wife, Elizabeth, a student in his biology class. Married 26 years, the Mengs raised their daughter Robin, now 24, and son Peter, 19, amid a collection of fish, fowl and reptiles. As a child, Robin used to startle dinner guests by appearing with a six-foot bull snake draped around her neck. “People have always thought this house was a little strange,” says the professor.
Such is Meng’s commitment to his gimlet-eyed charges that he hasn’t taken a vacation in years. “Who’d feed the falcons?” he asks plaintively. Apart from his teaching duties, the professor delivers up to 60 lectures a year to acquaint the public with the plight of the peregrine. Invariably, he brings his birds onstage and releases them to soar through the air. His advice to timid souls in the audience? “Just sit there and don’t act like a pigeon.”