The saga of Annie and Grinnell, the Berkeley peregrine falcons

The tone of the announcement – breathless, sheepish, exuberant – was not the sort of thing one associates with research scientists. But it’s not often that scientists are called upon to mend our broken hearts.

“We need to take a moment to sincerely apologize, but this is something totally unexpected and goes against just about everything we’ve seen,” read @calfalconcam’s March 1 post, a Twitter account run by a team of ornithologists at UC Berkeley. “Annie is…back!”

Annie is a female peregrine falcon who, since 2016, has been sheltering and laying eggs atop the university’s 307-foot-tall Sather Tower with her mate, Grinnell. She had disappeared at the end of February, just when the couple should have settled down for a new brood. The suspicion was strong that other females spotted in the area had chased her, or worse.

After a week, scientists, who monitor the falcons via a trio of webcams on the steeple, warned it was unlikely to return.

“Unfortunately, we believe that Annie was displaced from the territory, injured or died,” 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. Returning from her wanderings, the steel-gray raptor perched on the parapet as if she had just harassed pigeons.

“Never in our years of monitoring peregrine nests have we seen a female disappear at the height of the breeding season and reappear a week later as if nothing had changed,” the scientists said. . wrote. “She may still face competition from new birds in the area, but Queen Annie seems to be back.”

A queen? A celebrity, anyway, in a town without a lot of them, or a lot of glitz. If Berkeley had its own TMZ, the Falcons might just be the star most nights, at least during mating season. Certainly over the past year, when the projection of human emotions and intrigue onto them has proven irresistible to even the most scientific of minds.

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“These melodramatic soap opera birds deserve 5 seasons and a movie deal,” one follower commented on the post announcing Annie’s return, which received over 2,000 likes.

At my home in South Berkeley, about a mile from campus, the news of Annie’s return was greeted with jubilation. My wife cried a few tears of relief when I promised to share the news with our daughter during school pickup. Along with thousands of others, we closely followed subsequent reports that Annie and Grinnell had begun mating behaviors (head tilting, flight displays, food sharing) and then, on March 26, produced the first of two reddish-brown eggs.

For most of my life, I admired people who could tell one bird from another, but never made the effort to be one of them. That started to change when I started cycling six years ago. As I traveled the hills of the East Bay, I wondered why the large, shaggy brown raptors soared above the ridge, while the blue-winged little ones soared low over the grasslands – and in this way, I learned to tell a red-tailed hawk from a kestrel.

Hawks and falcons are what conservationists call charismatic megafauna: large, easily recognizable animals that serve as a gateway to 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 advantage of the opportunity to advance my ornithological studies and begin those of my daughter. What better way to start than with one of the most charismatic of all, the fastest creature in the world?

I vaguely knew that the Campanile, as Sather Tower is called, housed a pair of peregrine falcons that had settled in Berkeley and started breeding around the same time as me. (My daughter was born in October 2016; the falcons were first spotted on the Campanile in December.) After checking out the duo Youtube channel, where over 7,000 subscribers watch live streams and clips, I packed a picnic and binoculars, put my daughter on the cargo bike and headed to campus, where the eggs was in progress.

The Grinnell peregrine falcon, captured by the Cal Falcons nest camera, sits on eggs at UC Berkeley’s Campanile Tower.

(Cal Falcons)

At first, there wasn’t much to see – just a hunched gray shape perched on the parapet, Batman-style, or a spiraling crossbow silhouette above. We would watch for a while, then come home and turn on the webcams, hoping to catch a glimpse of the eggs as the birds swapped hunting and brooding duties.

A few weeks later, three eggs hatched and as the hatchlings matured into fledglings, our visits became more entertaining. The young birds swooped and swooped over the quads, practicing the aerial maneuvers they would soon need to hunt. Their siren cry – a hoarse rising note that chills the remnant part of mammalian brains that remember living in burrows – echoed off the stone buildings. By summer’s end, the juveniles had moved on to new territory – encouraged, or perhaps chased away, by their parents. The circle of life.

A falcon with an identification tag on its leg.

Grinnell watches over Berkeley from the top of Sather Tower.

(Cal Falcons)

And so it seemed like it would always go on: the Pilgrims following their old rhythms, while the human world below them seemed to grow angrier and less predictable week by week. And then Cal Hawks experienced their own violent break with the past.

In October, a second pair of falcons appeared at the Campanile. A few days later, Grinnell was discovered off campus on a garbage can lid, weakened by injuries to his beak, leg, and wing. Three weeks in a wildlife hospital saw him return to full health, but in his absence Annie had seemed receptive to the strange male.

Professional hawk watchers at the university have warned the couple’s many fans against expecting them to return to domestic life as normal. They urged people to avoid passing judgment on Annie for entertaining the newcomer; although hawks usually keep the same mate throughout their breeding years, they are, after all, birds.

Still, like all soap opera junkies, we had our favorite couple we were rooting for.

The caution was unwarranted. A few days after his return, Grinnell and Annie were once again an item. But when Annie went missing at the end of February, with a juvenile female peregrine paying particular attention to Grinnell, it was hard not to feel that something was wrong – that the growing cycle of chaos and discontinuity if widespread in other areas of American life, from politics to climate, had finally made its way into the world of hawks.

The sense of relief, then, when Annie arrived safe and sound – we were happy to see her, yes, but it felt like so much more than a bird sighting. And when she, after a comically brief mating session, laid first an egg, then a second, it was as if something had healed.

All of this made it even more upsetting when, on March 31, @calfalconcam threw the punch. “We are all deeply saddened to report that Grinnell was found dead in downtown Berkeley this afternoon,” the researchers tweeted. Cause of death unknown, but probably a car. With only one parent to incubate the eggs, the scientists said, they were unlikely to hatch.

More tears, this time of a different kind.

It is said that one of the functions of pets in the lives of families is to teach children about death. Wild peregrines aren’t pets, of course. Corn. On one of our first trips to the Campanile, we saw a falcon soaring towards a landing at the top of the tower, grabbing a pigeon. Soon the feathers 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 it?” she asked. What to say?

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

And then, a small gift: Thursday, a few hours after the discovery of Grinnell, an unbanded male previously seen around the Campanile presented himself. Spending the night in the nest, New Guy, as the researchers dubbed him, exhibited courtship behaviors, mated with Annie, and even briefly incubated the eggs.

“While the two eggs still haven’t arrived, this is an encouraging development,” they tweeted.

What’s even more heartening is that there are so many random hawks hanging around the tower to begin with, waiting for their chance to be the main character. Fifty years ago, it looked like peregrine falcons were going extinct because of egg failures linked to the pesticide DDT; now, a rare curatorial achievement, they practically jostle for camera time.

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

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