The saga of Annie and Grinnell, Berkeley’s peregrine falcons

The tone of the announcement – breathless, embarrassed, ebullient – was not what one associates with researchers. But it’s not often that scientists are called upon to mend our broken hearts.

“We must take a moment to offer our sincere apologies, but this is something completely unexpected and contradicts pretty much everything we’ve seen,” read the March 1 message from @calfalconcam, a Twitter account , operated by a team of ornithologists from UC Berkeley. “Annie is… back!”

Annie is a female peregrine falcon who, along with her mate Grinnell, has been sheltering and laying eggs on the university’s 100-meter-tall Sather Tower since 2016. She was gone in late February, just around the time the pair should have settled down to prepare for a new brood. Suspicions were high that other females sighted in the area had chased them away, or worse.

After a week, the scientists who monitor the hawks via three webcams installed on the bell tower warned that she was unlikely to return.

“Unfortunately, we believe Annie was either displaced from the area, injured, or dead,” they told the account’s 7,500 followers. “It’s incredibly difficult to say goodbye to Annie. She was a wonderful mother and raised 13 chicks in five broods.”

And then: joy. When she returned from her wanderings, the steel gray raptor was perched on the parapet as if she had just been chased doves.

“In our years of monitoring peregrine falcon nests, no female has ever disappeared during peak breeding season and reappeared a week later as if nothing had changed,” the scientists said wrote. “She may still face competition from the new birds in the area, but Queen Annie seems to be back.”

A queen? Anyway, a celebrity in a town without many of them or much glitz. If Berkeley had its own TMZ, the Falcons could be the top story most nights, at least during mating season. Surely over the past year, projecting human emotions and storylines onto them has proved irresistible to even the more scientifically minded.

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A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

“These melodramatic soap opera assholes deserve 5 seasons and a movie deal,” one follower commented on the post, which announced Annie’s return and garnered more than 2,000 likes.

At my home in South Berkeley, about a mile from campus, the news of Annie’s homecoming was greeted with rejoicing. My wife cried a few tears of relief when I promised to tell our daughter the news when she picked her up from school. We, along with thousands of others, eagerly followed subsequent reports that Annie and Grinnell had begun mating behavior (head bending, flight displays, shared feeding) and then produced the first of two russet eggs on March 26th.

For most of my life I have admired people who could tell one bird from another without ever bothering to be one of them. That changed when I started cycling six years ago. As I rode around the hills of the East Bay, I wondered why the tall, shaggy, brown raptors soared high over the ridge while the small, blue-winged ones soared low over the meadows—and that’s how I learned to spot a red – Tailed hawk from a kestrel.

Goshawks and hawks are what conservationists call charismatic megafauna: large, easily recognizable animals that serve as gateway drugs for an interest in nature. This is how it worked for me. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my wife and I suddenly had 40 extra hours of childcare per week, with few options beyond walks and hikes. I decided to take the opportunity to further my education as a bird watcher and begin my daughter’s. What better way to start than with one of the most charismatic of them all, the fastest creature on earth.

I was vaguely aware that the Campanile, as Sather Tower is known, was home to a pair of peregrine falcons that had moved to Berkeley and started breeding around the same time as me. (My daughter was born in October 2016; the hawks were first spotted atop the Campanile in December.) After checking into the duo’s YouTube channel, where more than 7,000 subscribers watch livestreams and clips, I packed a picnic lunch and binoculars I took my daughter on the cargo bike and rode to campus where egg-sitting season was underway.

A hawk sits on eggs.

Peregrine Falcon Grinnell, captured by the Cal Falcons nest camera, perches on eggs in the Campanile tower at UC Berkeley.

(Cal Falcons)

At first there wasn’t much to see – just a hunched, gray figure crouched on the parapet, Batman-style, or a crossbow silhouette spinning high overhead. We’d watch for a while, then ride home and turn on the webcams, hoping to catch a glimpse of the eggs as the birds traded hunting and nesting duties.

A few weeks later three eggs hatched and as the hatchlings grew into chicks our visits became more entertaining. The young birds flew and flew over the quads, practicing the aerial maneuvers they would soon need for hunting. Her siren-like cry—a shrill, soaring note that freezes the atrophied part of the mammalian brain that remembers burrowing—reverberated off the stone buildings. By summer’s end, the juveniles had moved to new territories – encouraged or perhaps repelled by their parents. The circle of life.

A falcon with a dog tag on its leg.

Grinnell overlooks Berkeley from the Sather Tower.

(Cal Falcons)

And so it seemed as if it would go on forever: the peregrine falcons banging on to their old rhythms, while the human world beneath them seemed to get angrier and less predictable by the week. And then the Cal Falcons experienced their own violent break with the past.

In October, a second pair of hawks appeared on the Campanile. Days later, Grinnell was discovered off campus perched on a garbage can lid, weakened by wounds to his beak, leg, and wing. After three weeks in a wildlife hospital he was fully recovered, but in his absence Annie seemed receptive to the strange man.

The university’s professional falconers warned the couple’s many fans not to expect them to continue with domestic life as usual. They urged people to avoid judging Annie for hosting the newcomer; Although hawks usually keep the same mate throughout their reproductive years, they are birds after all.

Still, like all soap opera addicts, we had our favorite couple to choose from.

The caution was unjustified. Within days of his return, Grinnell and Annie were back together. But when Annie disappeared in late February and Grinnell was being watched with conspicuous vigil by a teenage pilgrim, it was hard not to feel something was wrong — that the escalating cycle of chaos and discontinuity that had raged in other areas of American life so far widespread, from politics to climate, had finally entered the world of hawks.

So the sense of relief when Annie showed up safe and sound – we were glad to see her, yes, but it felt like a lot more than birdwatching. And when, after a comically short mating period, she laid first an egg, then a second, it was as if something had been healed.

All of which made it all the more jarring when @calfalconcam delivered the belly punch on March 31st. “We are all deeply saddened that Grinnell was found dead in downtown Berkeley this afternoon,” the researchers tweeted. Cause of death unknown but likely a car. With only one parent left to incubate the eggs, the scientists said it was unlikely they would hatch.

More tears, this time of a different kind.

It is said that one function of pets in family life is to teach children about death. Of course, wild peregrine falcons are not pets. But. On one of our early trips to the Campanile, we watched a hawk glide to a landing on the tower and grab a pigeon. Feathers quickly began to rain. My then 3 year old daughter asked what was going on and I told her the hawks were plucking the pigeon. “Doesn’t the pigeon like that?” she asked. What can I say?

Two years later, I faced the prospect of another uncomfortable conversation — the price of raising an animal lover.

And then a little gift: On Thursday, hours after Grinnell was found, an unbanded male previously seen at the Campanile turned up. New Guy, as the researchers called him, spent the night in the nest, exhibiting courtship behavior, mating with Annie and even briefly incubating the eggs.

“While the two eggs may still not make it, this is an encouraging development,” they tweeted.

What’s even more encouraging is that initially there are so many random hawks hanging around the tower, waiting for their chance to be the main character. 50 years ago it looked like peregrine falcons would become extinct due to egg failure linked to the pesticide DDT. now, a rare conservation success story, they’re practically jostling for camera time.

It might not have been the ending we wanted for our royal couple, but if more drama means more hawks having more babies, it’s a show we’ll be happy to do.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-04-05/the-avian-soap-opera-unfolding-atop-this-berkeley-clock-tower-has-humans-riveted The saga of Annie and Grinnell, Berkeley’s peregrine falcons

Russell Falcon

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