The promise of molding a graduate program in raptor biology is what drew current program director Marc Bechard to Boise State in 1983.

At the time, he was teaching at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where he had tried unsuccessfully to start a similar program.

Bechard’s interest in raptors dates back to when he was just a kid. He can’t really explain what sparked it, except to point out the obvious — raptors are just different from other birds. “I was always fascinated by predators,” he said. “I would see them when I was hunting for ducks and pheasants in Chico, California, as a kid.”

That ardor never dimmed. Bechard is interested in the birds’ role in the environment as top predators in just about every ecosystem. As hunters, birds of prey help control populations in a variety of species. Some, including vultures, are scavengers and serve to clean up and prevent the spread of disease. Most recently, he has begun research projects with Spanish colleagues on albatrosses and penguins on the Falkland Islands. “They are not raptors,” he noted, “but certainly predators.”

When the Peregrine Fund moved to Boise in 1983, they approached Boise State about establishing the raptor research degree. The university’s location near the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, which hosts the largest concentration of nesting raptors in North America, made it particularly appealing as a home for the unique program.

The Idaho State Board of Education approved the program in 1987. Peregrine Fund founder Tom Cade became the initial director. Over the years it also has been led by Mark Fuller and now Marc Bechard.

Three decades on, the program is thriving. What started as a project initially focused largely on captive breeding has expanded to include the study of gyrfalcons in Alaska, golden eagles in the Owhyee Mountains, snowy owls in Massachusetts, vultures in Africa and more.

Bechard personally has conducted raptor and ornithology courses in several overseas locations. His first two international classes were in Costa Rica, where students can view an amazing variety of birds in person. But during the second year, he contracted leishmaniasis, a parasite spread by the bite of a sandfly. It causes nasty skin ulcers and is difficult to treat. To prevent a repeat, future classes have been held in Seychelles, India and Africa, and he has taken student volunteers to Tarifa, Spain, to capture and band migrating raptors.

Bechard believes these remote courses are invaluable for students, who get to study species in person they would otherwise only read about. “You see them flying and diving for food, and that makes it more real,” he said. “Plus, it’s always so interesting for students to be away from their element and experience a different culture and get to know some of the people. That’s important.”

See photos from Bechard’s most recent class in Kenya.

Boise State’s master’s degree in raptor biology is totally unique. The only raptor research master’s program in the United States has now graduated around 100 students and regularly receives five times as many applications from across the country and beyond as there are spots available.