Forget the little stone bear in South Hall’s balcony railing. At UC Berkeley, there are two new subjects for a quick game of “I spy” — a pair of rare peregrine falcons perched atop the Campanile.
Kathleen Durkin, director of the campus’s Molecular Graphics and Computation Facility and a birdwatching hobbyist, was walking through campus two weeks ago on her way to work when she heard a strange bird call coming from Sather Tower.
“I go, ‘What’s that?’ There was some sound that really jumped out,” Durkin said. The noise prompted her to audio-record her surroundings. “You don’t want to say you saw Bigfoot without some evidence.”
Peregrine falcons are the fastest known animal on Earth — they can reach 242 mph in a dive — and exclusively eat other birds, according to Glenn Stewart, director of the UC Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group and an expert on peregrine falcons.
The species can be found on every continent except Antarctica. In California’s large cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, they have adapted to the built urban environment, trading cliffs for clock towers and other tall man-made structures. There are only 50 to 60 pairs in the Bay Area, Stewart estimated.
It’s unclear whether the pair perched on the Campanile have laid eggs there, but peregrines have a poor track record of nesting on the tower during mating season.
“I’ve never been aware of any successful attempts,” said Doug Bell, the East Bay Regional Park District’s wildlife program manager and UC Berkeley zoology alumnus. He noted that the campus’s installment of pigeon spikes around the upper edge of the Campanile likely deters peregrine falcons from roosting there.
Peregrine falcons have made their homes on many other Bay Area structures in recent years, such as City Hall in San Jose, the United Airlines hangar at San Francisco International Airport and the old Bay Bridge, according to Bell.
PG&E has set up a livestream to monitor peregrine falcons that visit its 77 Beale St. headquarters in downtown San Francisco. Last year, three eggs hatched atop the skyscraper — Talon, Grace and Flash, whose names were suggested by a Los Gatos kindergarten class — with a little help from Stewart.
But nesting on towers poses a whole new risk to the falcons. In young peregrines’ natural habitats, cliffs provide multiple opportunities for the fledglings to land — on trees, bushes or built-in shelves. Skyscrapers are more sleek and angular, so chicks often plunge hundreds of feet to their deaths when they attempt to fly, Bell said.
“Their first flight is often their last flight,” he said. “You need human intervention at that point to pick it up and put it back in the nest.”
The comeback chicks
Currently, there are an estimated 300 pairs of peregrine falcons statewide — a historic high in California. But almost 50 years ago, they were nearly extinct.
The usage of the pesticide DDT after World War II poisoned the falcons and thinned their eggshells, leading to an alarming decline in their numbers across the United States. A statewide survey found only two pairs in 1970, and the Eastern peregrine falcon temporarily went extinct east of the Mississippi River.
Thanks to conservation efforts by UCSC and Cornell University researchers, however, the peregrine population has seen an uptick since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later removed the peregrine falcon from its endangered species list in 1999.
“I have to pinch myself because I was around when there were so few peregrines,” Bell said. “I never thought we’d come to this point where you could see a peregrine fly over Downtown Berkeley.”
Bell added that, if given the opportunity, he would be happy to recruit volunteers to facilitate the falcons’ nesting atop the Campanile — perhaps the first peregrine success story in UC Berkeley’s history.
The effort would require coordination with the campus maintenance team and patience as the birds are given their space to incubate, he said. But even if the falcons don’t succeed in breeding this year, Bell was optimistic that the campus could install a nesting shelf for next year’s mating season.
“The Campanile is beautiful. You look down Telegraph Avenue and College Avenue, you look down some of the avenues of Berkeley, and it almost looks like a hunting flight path,” he said. “You feel like you’re on top of the world.”