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Not So Much a Tweet Storm as a Peregrine Plunge

July 7, 2017
by Krissy Eliot

When I started out as a reporter just a few years back, if you’d told me that this week I’d be standing on the UC Berkeley lawn staring up at live raptors (and documenting their every peep for FOUR days), I would never have believed you. Not just because the raptors are seldom-seen peregrine falcons, recently removed from a list of predators going extinct, but mostly because I never gave a flying flip about birds. Ever. And yet there I was this past Monday morning, peering skyward at the top of the campus Campanile, along with a team of concerned citizens on Bird Watch. Their mission? Making sure two falcon fledglings survive their first, and most dangerous, flights.

“If the peregrines are on a natural cliff, it generally has a lot of other rocks, ledges, nooks, and crannies. So a young peregrine can jump off the nest and land on a ledge,” said Cal grad Doug Bell, East Bay Parks District wildlife program manager who showed up for the Bird Watch. “But on a skyscraper or other city building, there’s no ledge to get back onto, because they lose altitude on their first flight. The Campanile,” he paused, “is straight down.”

Three hundred and seven feet down, to be exact—the third-tallest bell-and-clock-tower in the world. Young peregrines can get off the ground easily enough, but usually need at least a few tries to truly stick a landing. That’s quite the plunge for a feather ball that barely weighs one pound—and always seems to suck eggs on a first flight.

“It’s important to have a fledge watch, so that if a bird does wind up on the ground it can be gathered for its second flight,” Bell said, which is why the Watch members flocked together a considerable distance northeast of the Campanile—binoculars and telescopes at the ready—to make sure they saw where the fledglings landed. Cardboard Petco boxes, gloves, and a pool skimmer sat nearby should the birds injure themselves and need be transported to Lindsay Wildlife, a rehab hospital. Other groups were spread around the campus for the same reason. If the birds landed without problems, then Watch members would give them a lift up the Campanile so they could try again.

It sounded only mildly terrifying to be a fledgling—until I learned that plunging to their deaths is only one possible horrible fate.

“Oh my God!” gasped Chrissy Tarr, a cataloger at the Berkeley Law Library and member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. She brandished a finger toward a murder of crows streaming towards the top of the Campanile—a black, ominous arrowhead moving starkly against a pale grey sky.

Mary Malec / Krissy Eliot

“Crows and ravens are some of the smartest birds,” Bell said. “And it’s a bird-eat-bird world out there.”

“They’ll snatch the babies right out of the air and take them away,” said Mary Malec, head volunteer raptor nest monitor for East Bay Regional Park District. She clutched her binoculars, breath bated. Even if they tried, none of them could make it to the top of the Campanile in time to save the youngsters.

As the murder descended upon the tower, there came a cry like a seagull in deep mourning: kakkkk kakkkk kakkkk called Mama Falcon—a sound that seemed to instantly shatter the arrowhead into crows flying off in opposite directions. Human exhales were heard, followed by the BONG of the tower bells striking 10.

And this was only the first hour of the Watch.

It takes young peregrines 38-40 days of growing before they’re ready to fledge, and then there’s a small window of time in which they could have liftoff. Bell, Malec, and the rest of the group knew the exact timeline because they played a big part in the eggs’ hatching in the first place.

You see, the members of the Bird Watch and these falcons go WAY back, roughly three months back (a long time in the life of a bird). About that time Kathleen Durkin, an amateur birdwatcher who runs a computational chemistry lab at Berkeley, was riding her bicycle up University Drive on a sunny Saturday in early April. She was trying to sharpen her ear and ID familiar calls, when “the best thing happened.” She heard Mama Falcon’s call.

“I heard a sound so unfamiliar that it stopped me in my tracks,” Durkin said. “I always carry small binoculars, so I searched for the source. I spent about 15 minutes really convincing myself that they were peregrine falcons.”

She traced them to the Campanile and made an official report to the Golden Gate Audubon Society, who then alerted Bell and other bird experts. With legal permission, Bell and Malec went up to the top of the Campanile to find three bird eggs lying in an open sandbag. Knowing that this probably wouldn’t allow the eggs to incubate properly, they created an emergency shelf for nesting—a 2.5’ x 2.5’ square tray made of plastic, about 3” deep, filled with gravel. Unlike most birds, peregrines don’t build a nest, but use their claws to burrow into substrate, like gravel or soil, and form an impression to put their eggs into. Soon after the shelf was placed and they moved her eggs into it, Mama Falcon returned to the eggs and accepted the new nest.

One of the eggs didn’t make it, and was later found cold on the roof’s surface. However, it was most likely the shelf that helped the two remaining female fledglings (named Fiat and Lux by way of Berkeley Facebook vote) to survive.

About a month later, the eggs hatched, and Malec and Bell went up again to assist in putting wrist-bands on the chicks’ talons—necessary to allow scientists to track their migration, and presumably to identify them as “good” to get back into the rooftop party on the Campanile.

For Bell, whether or not to save the falcons isn’t just a question of protecting a once-dying species, but a question of morality, of whether humans have a duty to reckon for the planet they’ve devastated

Malec was swiftly attacked by Mama Falcon, apparently not keen on some stranger fondling her teenagers. As Malec knelt down next to the babies, Mama Falcon was descending from the heavens—she plummeted into Malec’s head, clawing at her scalp. Malec quickly retreated over the dismembered bodies of dead pigeons and the splatters of falcon excrement, only to be clipped in the neck moments later by a wing.

“She was well within her rights,” Malec said of Mama Falcon’s defense of her children. She touched her head tenderly and winced at the memory.

I thought all this noble of Bell and Malec, but I still wondered what all the flap was about—why get all a-flutter over a pair of baby birds? Peregrines are still technically a protected species in California, but they’re no longer in danger of extinction.

For Bell, whether or not to save the falcons isn’t just a question of protecting a once-dying species, but a question of morality—of whether humans have a duty to reckon for the planet they’ve devastated.  

“What we’re seeing on a worldwide basis, is habitat destruction beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. Think of climate change, the likely downstream effects of sea-level change—it’s hard to predict what the world is going to look like in 100 years, much less 200 years,” Bell said. “How we produce and use forests, how we produce palm oil plantations, how we’re fracking the West. Look at all the things that humans have done to the world.”

Now, we have a situation where the peregrines could possibly capitalize upon habitat alterations, Bell says, no longer nesting on cliffs but instead learning to live peacefully among humans in very populated cities.

“Up to this point, we were living against them,” Bell said. “Now, we’re trying to live with them.”  

Which is probably the least we could do, since we nearly killed them in one foul swoop.

For a long time, peregrines were used to hunt with humans. But as guns became more commonplace after the 1500s, falcons were seen as competition—targeted by humans who would shoot them down for funsies.

It wasn’t until much later that people started to understand that predators play a vital role in sustaining the environment, and that it is crucial to keep them alive. In fact, it was studying the lives of the remaining peregrines that ended up protecting the lives of humans.

DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), one of the first synthetic insecticides, was used widely starting in the 1940s. Within a couple decades, it was discovered that DDT was having adverse effects on the eggs of peregrines, making the shells too thin to properly incubate and hatch. This triggered more research into the effects of DDT, resulting in its classification as a possible human carcinogen that could harm reproductive abilities in humans.

“The peregrine is at the top of the food chain, and is essentially sampling a wide variety of avian prey, that is, birds,” Bell said. Because of that, their health is a reflection of the health of other species in the environment. It’s vital for scientists to study falcons to determine what changes we need make for our own health—an idea that’s hard to swallow considering EPA cutbacks and policies proposed to stop investigating environmental chemicals.

I peered through the telescope to see what I presumed to be Lux, peeking out of the balcony to bob her head like Chris Kattan in Night at the Roxbury. Apparently, this meant she was narrowing her focus.

“It’s such an exciting thing to have a wild creature that seems to have been able to adapt to the built human environment, take advantage of it, and move into our cities,” said Bell, gesturing to the clock tower. “To our knowledge, there’s never been a known nesting attempt on the Campanile.”

Four of the volunteers gasped in unison.

“One of the babies! She’s bobbing!” Malec said. I peered through the telescope to see what I presumed to be Lux, peeking out of the balcony to bob her head like Chris Kattan in Night at the Roxbury. Apparently, this meant she was narrowing her focus, seeing places where she could land.

We waited. We stared.

“I wish people would give ME this kind of attention,” I said.

“Hang off the Campanile and they will,” Tarr replied.

A few minutes passed. Lux looked into the eye of the telescope at me, shrugged, then disappeared behind the balcony. Pigs were going to fly before these falcons.

After about three and half hours, it became clear that we were a bunch of turkeys. Malec told me that she imagined the flight would be delayed until that evening or the next morning. She was right.

At around 5 pm on Monday, long after I’d flown the coop to go watch some TV… one of the girls flitted off the Campanile, and dropped lightly down into a tree. For a fledgling flight, her performance was worth preening over. About three hours later, she returned to the nest. It took her sister until today to give one flying duck about leaving the nest—seemingly content to live with her parents into the foreseeable future (ugggh, millennials). But regardless of her questionable choices, what’s important about her future is that she and these other peregrines have one, thanks to a group of humans who still give a hoot.

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