Honoring Butch and Buzz, The Osprey Twins

by Gael Bissell

Doug and Don with an Osprey

We were in 9th or 10th grade, says Doug “Butch” MacCarter, the just five-minute older twin brother of Don “Buzz” MacCarter, and we rode our bikes, as we did most every day since Kindergarten, to the rim rocks above Billings.” It was 1958-59. “Our goal was to find reptiles and amphibians and bring them home. Our Dad had built these high quality wooden structures for these critters in our basement.

That day we found a bull snake with four odd small legs that we later described and sent into the Billings Gazette”, tells Doug. It was after this simple event that the lives of these two curious energetic twins changed. Upon reading this article, they got a call from a famous European falconer, D. J. Nelson, who lived in Billings and wanted to see this odd creature. Doug and Don took the snake over to D.J.’s home where, as Doug puts it, “the place was like a museum – tons of mounts, photographs from around the world, dead sea scrolls, and most incredibly, live birds of prey in the back yard!”. Once they met Sutan, a 20-lb gorgeous prize-winning European golden eagle who D.J. had trained for professional falconry, they asked “can we learn from you?”

These boys then decided falconry and everything birds of prey would be their future. D.J. helped them train a female Northern harrier named Kima and soon the twins were using 100-yard long tethers at the local football field first exercising and then finally releasing Kima as a newly trained bird.

Through high school, the twins trained and cared for red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, and kestrels. After graduation, they headed to the University of Montana to continue their wildlife education in part because of the Craighead brothers who also had a passion for birds of prey and kept wild raptors at the University for education and rehabilitation. The MacCarter brothers quickly took over much of the care for these wild birds. They also began working with Jay Sumner surveying peregrine falcon eyries across Montana. It was right after high school that Don MacCarter, who had asked for his first camera for high school graduation, began his path to become an outstanding and renowned wildlife photographer.

Their birds of prey passions, the profound effects of Rachael Carson’s book Silent Spring, coupled with national attention to declining reproductive rates of bald eagles and osprey that lead Butch and Buzz to pursue graduate degrees by studying food habits and population dynamics of osprey on Flathead Lake based at the Flathead Lake Biological Station. Their research began in 1966 and continued through post-graduate work to1976. They published some of the first research results on the decline of western populations of osprey associated with egg shell thinning and pesticide contamination from chemicals such as DDT likely being used in the surrounding cherry orchards or farms. DDT was finally banned in 1972. 

After Flathead Lake research wound down, the brothers forged similar but different wildlife careers with one thing in common: wildlife and education. Don taught high school science and wildlife classes for 17 years in Lakeville MN before moving to Santa Fe, NM to become head of the “Division of Chief of Public Affairs” with the state’s wildlife agency. Don was their main photographer and oversaw all of the New Mexico Game and Fish Agency’s education programs. Because he was particularly skilled at wildlife observations, he also undertook many of the agency’s helicopter surveys of bighorn sheep, waterfowl, and big game. Don and his wife, Jane, retired to “Paradise” Valley in 2005 where he focused primarily on wildlife photography and fly fishing until his courageous battle with cancer ended in 2018.

Doug also pursued high school education first in MN and then, in 1978, Scottsdale AZ where he taught advanced wildlife biology, animal behavior, anatomy and physiology at their local high school (lucky students). He was associated with the Liberty Wildlife Rehabilitation Center where he helped not only with birds of prey rehabilitation and releases after injures but also training birds for public education and training young students/volunteers on how to care for and handle birds of prey and give their own public programs. He obtained his pilot’s license and flew with the Civil Air Patrol all over AZ to pick up injured birds and bring them back to Liberty. Doug also taught scuba diving to students with disabilities. Doug also “retired” around 2005 where he started to spend more of his summers in the Flathead eventually working with Wild Wings, Flathead Audubon, and once again monitoring osprey populations with Rick Mace on Flathead Lake and Flathead River. Doug has helped rescue birds of prey, remove baling twin from osprey nests, and given many programs and field trips.

These “MacCarter Twins” have shaped the lives of hundreds of young kids across our country, helped save countless individual wild birds of prey, and undertook turnkey research on the effects of pollution on wild population of osprey around Flathead Lake. Don ‘s legacy continues through his amazing wildlife photography that will be shared with us at our Sept 9 public meeting. As he has done in the past, Doug continues to help Flathead Audubon in our education and field trip programs, and for that, we are very grateful.