After months of being glued to every move made by a family of peregrine falcons on the UC Berkeley campus, the end is in sight: the two fluffy white male chicks that hatched in April have grown up — remarkably fast it seemed to those of us who knew nothing about birds of prey before becoming wildlife webcam obsessives — and they’ve flown the nest.
Cade and Carson — because of course they have names, chosen in a community competition from more than 2,000 submissions — both took their first flights on Wednesday and are now rarely caught on the two video cameras installed at the top of the UC Berkeley Campanile. The nest box is empty, the odd bird bone and plentiful excrement the only evidence of all the drama of the past weeks.
“It’s been engrossing and interesting and fascinating,” said Berkeleyside reader Elaine who admitted she’s been hooked on falcon watching. “What am I going to do now?”
“They’ve been doing amazingly well,” said Sean Peterson commenting on how the two chicks have fledged.
Peterson, a PhD student in UC Berkeley’s department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, has been one of six experts monitoring the raptors in this, their third year making a nest on the Campanile. He and his wife, Lynn Schofield, an ecologist at The Institute for Bird Populations, have been posting regular updates about the birds, and answering readers’ questions, on Cal Falcon’s Facebook and Twitter since the two webcams went live.
“The average first flight for male chicks is day 39-42,” Peterson said. “Sunday was day 39 so we started keeping an eye out for them to fly then.”
Late on Wednesday, on day 42, Carson, who flew first having earlier done a short ledge-to-railing flight, dropped down to a two-foot-wide ledge which is below the level of the nest. Cade jumped out half an hour afterwards to join his sibling, according to Peterson, and both stayed on the ledge overnight.
For anyone concerned about their safety in such a potentially tricky spot, Peterson is reassuring.
“This is pretty normal,” Peterson said. “Naturally they grow up on cliff faces which are just as exposed.”
Then, early Thursday morning, Carson flew from the Campanile to Evans Hall and Cade flew 30 feet down to the bell level of the tower. They were getting the hang of this flying thing.
Carson, Peterson said, seems to be slightly more adventurous than his brother.
“Birds have very distinctive personalities — there can be huge differences in how they react to situations,” he said.
But, lest he be accused of favoritism, Peterson was quick to add that both birds are doing phenomenally well.
“It’s very encouraging,” he said.
Carson is named after Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring and a leader in the movement to ban DDT, one of the major threats to peregrine falcons, and Cade is named after Tom Cade, the founder of the Peregrine Fund, which was integral in reestablishing falcons in the US.
Things can, of course, go wrong at any stage. One of the eggs laid this year by the parents, Annie and Grinnell, didn’t hatch. And in a previous year, one of the chicks died during fledging when it flew into a building.
A fledge-watch crew, headed up by Mary Malec, a volunteer raptor coordinator with the East Bay Regional Park District, has been working shifts since Sunday and will continue to stand guard for a few more days, Peterson said. The volunteers watch to make sure the chicks don’t get into trouble, and intervene if they end up on the ground where they might be injured or vulnerable to other, hungry animals.
A wildlife advisory has been posted around the Cal campus asking that if anyone finds a juvenile falcon on the ground, they not touch or pick them up, but rather contact the experts monitoring the birds.
Annie and Grinnell are still keeping an eye on their offspring and are bringing them food.
“Annie can be seen flying circles around them and the chicks are really good at seeing their parents coming in from a long distance,” Peterson said. “They start making a racket — which is a clue to us that the parents are close by.”
Hunting for food — which for falcons means primarily other birds — is a tough skill for a young peregrine to master. They are a diving species, said Peterson, which means they dive for their prey very fast.
Just as Annie and Grinnell have been conscientious in their parenting obligations to date, they will likely help their chicks learn to hunt by putting them through some training.
“They bring living prey and drop it in the air for the chicks to try to catch,” said Peterson. “It’s awesome to see.”
While the webcams will probably be switched off soon, the falcon family will likely stick around the Campanile for 1-2 months while the chicks develop their flying and hunting skills. We may hear them even if we don’t see them, as their calls are loud and distinctive.
And they may well be back for an encore this time next year. The lifespan of a falcon in the wild is 10-15 years, according to Peterson, so Annie and Grinnell have another six years in them.
Another possible scenario is that one parent will die or be driven out and another mate takes his or her place while continuing to occupy the same territory, Peterson said. Multiple pairs of raptors have made nests on the PG&E tower in San Francisco for example, for approximately 20 years.