While the COVID-19 pandemic made many feel as if time had stopped in its tracks, the UC Berkeley peregrine falcons were an example for many that life goes on.
Since 2017, campus’s falcon family has nested atop the Campanile, looking down on thousands of students, faculty, staff and passersby making their way across campus. However, similar to how they seemingly keep watch over Berkeley grounds, thousands of avid falcon fans have kept watch over them, building a community stretching across the country.
Through the lens of a live-feed camera, the story of Annie — resident mother and foundation of the peregrine family — has not only been recorded, but also narrated, editorialized and sympathized in distinct tabloid fashion over the years. From an unprovoked attack on a lover to a mysterious disappearance, a blindsided tragedy to a rebound turned companion, Annie’s stay at the Campanile can be read as a pitch for a prime-time novella.
However, the Cal Falcons team has broken down the lives of these birds in an educational yet relatable fashion, pulling the brains and heartstrings of a worldwide community.
Finding home in the Campanile
Peregrine falcons can dive at more than 240 miles per hour, making them the world’s fastest animal, according to Cal Falcons member Sean Peterson. He added the birds were almost extinct in the wild in the U.S. 50 years ago, but through careful conservation efforts and environmental protection, they have “bounced back incredibly.”
Widespread use of the insecticide DDT in the 1940s and ‘50s led to the decline of the peregrines, with only two pairs left in California. After DDT was banned in 1973 and captive breeding programs were introduced, the number has grown to around 400 self-sustaining pairs in California, with more on every continent except for Antarctica.
“One of the best things that make them special is that they’re one of the best examples of a species’ recovery from the brink of extinction out there,” said Peterson in an email.
Though they naturally dwell in cliff-like areas, Bay Area peregrines have adapted to an urban environment by trading cliffs for tall structures such as the Campanile.
The Campanile is the tallest and most prominent structure in the Berkeley area, making it an ideal nesting area for peregrines, Malec added. The tower provides a high, cliff-like surface with a nesting shelf, places to defend their territory and sightlines for miles that allow the birds to hunt.
Cal Falcons cameras provide ‘connection to nature.’
With three high-definition nest cameras, an education group and multiple social media accounts, the Cal Falcons team is able to share highlights, keep the public up to date with Annie’s antics and teach people about the birds’ biology.
“Social media has been a great way to allow people to interact with biologists and answer all the questions that everyone can come up with,” Peterson said in an email. “It’s such an amazing community that is really fun to be a part of.”
The group made a decision very early on in their work to focus only on the falcons in the Campanile. According to Malec, by restricting their discussions to just the peregrines, Cal Falcons have been able to educate and communicate with the public effectively.
The Cal Falcons’ social media accounts get dozens of questions a day, Malec noted.
“The falcons provide people a very cool connection to nature and wildlife,” Peterson said in an email. “It’s just a really unique glimpse into the lives of wild animals that we don’t typically get to see.”
‘Glimpse of their lives’: A community with no bounds
For graphic artist and campus falcon enthusiast Ning Wan, Annie’s feathered family served as an escape during the early stages of the pandemic.
Wan said she was introduced to the falcons by her mother, a UC Berkeley alumna, and since then she said she was attached. She commended the Cal Falcons scientists for providing a “glimpse of their lives” — characters they could feel attached to.
As a graphic artist, Wan said her medium has been a way to express herself without words or in writing. After the tragic passing of Grinnell, Wan channeled her emotion into her art — creating comics to memorialize the peregrine’s death, she said, was simpler than explaining her connection to the birds.
Wan, however, did not expect others to reach out and connect with her work.
“I made the comic to process my feelings and express myself,” Wan said. “I didn’t think it would get picked up by so many people. … It was really touching.”
Kate Finman, a former Daily Cal staffer and campus alumna, noted the birds were a “really cool” gift that the campus community wouldn’t otherwise have in their everyday sight. She added that one could be having a bad day, but have a glimmer of hope knowing that the falcons on their own were thriving.
While no longer living on the West Coast, Finman said she still keeps herself in the loop on their general activities. While she doesn’t watch the livestream as much anymore, Finman still enjoys getting updates on their lives and has introduced the community to her circle across the country.
“What makes them special is that the people who run the Cal Falcons account and scientists have done such a great job telling their stories while also keeping it scientific,” Finman said. “You can fall in love with the birds without personifying them too much.
While Malec did admit that the birds were not perfect and made plenty of mistakes, choosing the Campanile as a home was not one of them.
As residents on campus, Malec said it’s their responsibility to make sure they stay safe and their home stays secure; a commitment that provides a unique yet powerful connection.
Malec noted that Grinnell was particularly easy to get attached to, and for many, his loss was equated to individual grief.
“Losing something that you’ve made a commitment to is really difficult,” Malec said. “We’ve made a commitment to their wellbeing and their safety and gone to a lot of measures to make sure their nest is safe and secure.”