harrier eagle

Frances Hamerstrom

Frances "Fran" Hamerstrom (December 17, 1907 - August 29,1998) was an American author and naturalist famous for her work with the greater prairie chicken in Wisconsin and research on birds of prey.


The daughter of an heiress and an international criminologist, she was born Frances Flint in Boston in 1907. In 1931, she married Frederick Hamerstrom, a sophomore English major at Dartmouth College who she had met at a dance. They became engaged on their third date and got secretly married to facilitate travel together in a time when unmarried couples did not normally do so. Frederick and Fran kept their marriage secret from their parents and were later married in a grand ceremony in Frans' parents home in Massachusetts in grand style.

Fran Hamerstrom, the only female graduate student of ecologist and A Sand County Almanac author Aldo Leopold, was a prolific writer herself. She published over 100 professional papers and 10 books on the prairie chicken, harrier, eagle and other wildlife topics, some translated (by Fran herself) into the German language. Although raised to become the wife of a diplomat, she early on developed a fascination with the natural world. Despite her father's constant complaint that such behavior was "unladylike," she kept wild pets at her family's ancestral home at Boston and became a lifelong hunter and outdoorsperson. To keep her family from uncovering evidence of her wildlife adventures, she planted poison ivy along the path which led to where she kept her wilderness gear. (Fran was naturally immune from its effects).

The Hamerstroms started their marriage with an intense desire to work in a wildlife-related field at a time when the modern wildlife management and research profession was just starting. They first thought they would make a career farming ring-necked pheasants for hunters, but gave up on that plan after meeting wildlife conservationist and ecologist Aldo Leopold at a wildlife meeting. The Hamerstroms went to Iowa State University to study under Paul Errington, where Frederick won a master's degree and Fran a Bachelor's degree working on studies of predation, including studying the food habits of the great horned owl. Then they went to Wisconsin to work on a wildlife refuge and then to graduate school under Aldo Leopold, the father of game management. Frederick was one of only three men to win a doctorate under Leopold and Fran was the only woman graduate student under Leopold and won a master's degree under Leopold. It was Aldo Leopold who started Frederick and Fran on a study of the imperiled greater prairie chicken, which was in decline in Wisconsin.

Their major contribution in research, was a result of their lifetime study of the endangered prairie chicken in a research area (including the Buena Vista and Leola Marshes) nearby their 1850s-era, Plainfield, Wisconsin, home, an elegantly designed bit of pre-Civil War architecture that was never completed and lacked indoor plumbing. The Hamerstrom home had been intended as a stage coach stop and had an uncompleted ballroom upstairs which served as a great storage area for specimens and data collected from the field research over many years. The Hamerstroms raised two children, Alan and Elva, in their home outside of Plainfield. Hamerstrom life was far from ordinary, even during the childhood of Alan and Elva, and Fran confided to a friend who visited the house years later that "we had all the luxuries (such as a first-rate ornithological library) and none of the necessities".

Research completed by the Hamerstroms focused on the habitat needs of the greater prairie chicken and resulted in a management plan suggesting that the prairie chicken required a "checkerboard" pattern of habitat. The Hamerstroms helped focus public attention on the need for habitat preservation and helped form the Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinadus to purchase lands that could be managed for the preservation of the species. For this, Frederick and Fran are credited by naturalists worldwide for saving the prairie chicken from extirpation in Wisconsin. An estimated seven thousand of wildlife observers (called "boomers") participated in the collection of necessary data for this project, with Fran playing host to all of them at her home. Fran and Hammy also conducted a decades' long, Plainfield, Wisconsin, study of the northern harrier, which resulted in a book "Harrier: Hawk of the Marshes" published by the Smithsonian Institute Press and which documented the relationship of breeding success of harriers to their cyclical food supply. Fran was a great raptorphile; she also practiced falconry, studied American kestrels and the use of nest boxes as a management tool for kestrels, and banded thousands of raptors in Wisconsin and in other parts of North America during her many travels.

As a writer, Fran Hamerstrom's reputation rests on a lifetime of popularizing meticulously researched science for general readers. Among her books are Walk When the Moon is Full, Is She Coming Too? Memoirs of a Lady Hunter, An Eagle to the Sky, and My Double Life.

She was also well known for her artistry as a cook, publishing a wild game cookbook near the end of her life (her secret for pie crusts was the use of bear lard, and her readers would occasionally send her bear lard as a by-product of their own hunting experiences). As a lecturer and storyteller, Hamerstrom's abilities were rarely matched and never bested. Her spare prose was elegant and surprising, always pushing her readers to flip to the next page and the next chapter. By training hundreds of research assistants (nicknamed "gabboons") and by writing formal scientific papers and informal books, Fran and her husband inspired thousands of young people to dedicate their lives to science and to public service. Their impact in the field of wildlife research and management may be unparalleled; both the Prairie Grouse Technical Council and the Raptor Research Foundation offer lifetime achievement awards in the name of Fran and Frederick Hamerstrom.

Following Frederick Hamerstrom's death in 1990, Fran decided it was time to visit tropical areas of the world that her late husband had no interest in visiting. She investigated the natural world in places as far flung as Saudi Arabia, Africa and South America. She was robbed at knife point during an Amazon boat trip and had her hearing aid stolen by a gorilla in Africa. Legends and stories by and about Fran abound, and her tendency to exaggerate is reflected by a philosophy her husband is recorded as attaching to her: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story".

After being tenderly cared for at her Plainfield home by her friend, the artist Deann De La Ronde, Fran Hamerstrom died at a nearby Port Edwards, Wisconsin, nursing home that summer, following a pitched battle with cancer, after a full 90 years of adventure.


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