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A life dedicated to the environment

The birds had holed up in their nests to keep out of the cold wind, which was by far the most benign reason they were a scarce sight Thursday morning in a patch of woods north of Brooksville.

Power lines, radio towers and tall buildings annually kill thousands of migrating birds that fly into them, said Steve Fickett Jr., a birder of statewide renown who lives in Brooksville. While on a lecture tour recently, Fickett said, he happened to notice the base of a skyscraper after a foggy night. "There were just piles of warblers, vireos and thrushes, all of them dead."

Bluebirds, which are drawn to orchards by the insects that feed there, have died in huge numbers from ingesting pesticides. Ponds in the Dakotas, where waterfowl rest and feed during migration, have dried up in droughts and been filled in by farmers.

And across the country, but especially in Florida, the building of shopping centers, roads and housing tracts has left the birds with greatly diminished grounds for feeding and nesting.

"People call me and ask where all the birds are, why they aren't seeing the warblers and thrushes. And I have to tell them that there's an awful lot going against them," Fickett said in a tone of almost paternal concern. "It's just that the birds have so much against them."

His attachment should come as no surprise. Fickett, 69, has cared about birds, if not as deeply, far longer even than he has cared for his adult children. His father taught him to appreciate bird life when he was a very young boy, walking through the woods of Long Island, Maine and Orange County.

By continuing to study them as an adult, he became one of the leading authorities on Florida bird life.

He was chairman of the cooperative that first surveyed the state's bald eagle nests in 1972. He has served as the president of the Florida Nature Conservancy and of Save Our American Raptors (SOAR), and on the board of directors of the Florida Audubon Society.

In 1975, he was the first winner of the society's Allan D. Cruickshank Award, given every year to the person who does the most to protect state wildlife.

"He's top-notch," said Paul Elliot of Tampa, who, like Fickett, is a former biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. "You can't get any better than Steve Fickett. And you won't hear anyone disclaim that. He's just an excellent birder."

It is also not surprising that Fickett, when he speaks of the declining population of local birds, refers to events in North Dakota, the Northeast and South America.

Fickett worked as a biologist for the game commission for 33 years and was among the first handful of people to work for the department when he was hired out of the University of Florida in 1950, said Robert Brantly, the commission's executive director.

Perhaps more than anyone, Fickett helped change the focus of the agency from merely enforcing game regulations to managing and preserving entire ecosystems, Brantly said.

And one of Fickett's principles is that all forms of natural life, even faraway ones, are intricately and inextricably connected.

"Steve helped advance scientific wildlife management not only in the department, but all across the state," Brantly said. "He took a holistic approach to wildlife management, not just for game species, but for non-game species as well. That was all very new then."

When Fickett began his career, naturalists were not usually so allied against the establishment. Fickett never was, and he does not seem to have changed.

He looks neither like a priggish bird-watcher nor a neo-hippie environmentalist, but more like a hunting guide. He is tall and erect and wears Wellington boots and flannel shirts.

And sometimes he carries a gun.

Hunting can be done responsibly by harvesting limited amounts of wildlife and consuming what is shot, he said. And he argues that hunting organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited, have done as much as any to protect habitat.

He also defends the mines as a necessary part of the local economy, a stance that he acknowledges has frustrated some activists. And in 1990, many environmentalists accused him of being a double-agent for Exxon. He and Doris Mager, founder of SOAR, accepted a trip from the company a year after the Alaskan oil spill. When they returned, they reported an amazing recovery. Fickett still says his opinions were honest.

"I saw very little long-term damage up there," he said.

If this gives rise to doubts about his concern for nature, they slip away when you join him on a walk through the 320-acre Janet Butterfield Brooks Preserve off Citrus Way.

He is as comfortable here as he might be in his living room. And the plants and animals, not just the birds, are as familiar to him as knickknacks and family photographs. It's easy and natural for him to tell all about everything you can see.

The ferns growing in the crook of a large oak are called resurrection ferns, he said. They are so named because a few days before they were brown and drooping. Now, one good night of rain had made them lush and green.

The old droppings on the trail were white with undigested rabbit fur, which told him they were not from a dog or a fox, but from a bobcat. A plant called button bush surrounded the pond. The long-leafed pines not only have longer needles than loblollies, but longer cones as well.

When the wind dies down and the sun comes out, the chatter of birds begins immediately.

One of the things that makes Fickett a great birder, says his birding partner, George Alden, is that "he not only knows his birds by sight, he knows them by sound."

The chirping that came from the bushes was a white-eyed vireo, Fickett said. Then he said the same about a much harsher sound. "They have two calls," he explained. "That is the scolding note of the white-eyed vireo." Soon, with the binoculars, he was able to point it out, a tiny bird with a bright-yellow breast and an olive drab back.

Even on this windy morning, he quickly sighted a tufted titmouse, a chickadee and a Carolina wren. He saw several red-headed woodpeckers and heard the song of a red-bellied one.

Obviously, it all gives him a great deal of pleasure. "I just enjoy being in the woods," he said.

"Like he always says, I think he's birding since he was in his mommy's tummy," Mager said.

He loved the hunting trips with his father, and fishing with him almost every Saturday at Lake Apopka, "back when it was so clean you could see 15 feet down," Fickett said.

But he always had a special feeling for birds. At first his father would tell him the species he was seeing. Later he would encourage his son to memorize the markings and the silhouette, and match the bird he had seen in the field with the drawings in the guide back home. And still later, when Fickett was 16, his father sent him to the Audubon Nature Camp in Maine.

But not long afterward, Fickett began to get the sense that his father would like him to develop other interests, something he could make a career of. The elder Fickett had traveled in the West when it was still wild and entered business in New York. By the time he moved to Orange County when young Steve was about 10, he was impressive and prosperous.

"My father was a citrus man and he thought I would get the birds out of my head," Fickett said.

He didn't, of course. In a college career divided by World War II, Fickett studied wildlife management and forestry as a substitute for ornithology, which the university did not offer.

After being hired by the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, he continued to study birds, both at work and away from it.

He didn't get rich, but he made enough to move into a comfortable house in Brooksville. It was there that he and his wife, Dorothy, who has since died, raised six children.

Once, after he was well established in his career, his father joined him on hunting trip. As the day in the woods passed, his father began commenting on how good it felt to be outdoors. He mentioned how enjoyable it must be to spend a working day there, how worthwhile it is to preserve wild places.

Finally, Fickett said, his father told him something he has remembered ever since.

"He said, "You know, son, I think you had the right idea all along."

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