A paper nest, a bird tattoo: Berkeley’s peregrine falcons inspire artists near and far

Artists’ fascination with the raptors atop the UC Berkeley Campanile has led to paintings, drawings, digital art and a tattoo.

“I am a self-taught artist who enjoys using all sorts of mediums to create art,” said Lora Roame, a wildlife biologist who lives in Walnut Creek. “I usually work in acrylic, graphite, ink, digital and watercolor. I love science illustration and enjoy painting local plants and animals, especially birds and bats.” Credit: Lora Roame
“Tower” was hand-carved on linoleum by Berkeley artist Irenka Pareto. It shows two crows and a falcon in a formation that suggests a tower, like the Campanile. Credit: Irenka Pareto

Nature has always inspired artists, so it’s no surprise that UC Berkeley’s peregrine falcons appear in numerous paintings, drawings, photos — and even a tattoo — by artists from the Bay Area and beyond. Much of the artwork surfaced after the death of Grinnell, Annie’s longtime mate, on March 31, but also as a result of the pandemic, when falcon-watching on 24/7 webcams was a pastime for many people sheltered in place.

Irenka Pareto, a UC Berkeley alumna who is a local printmaker and illustrator, created “Tower,” a hand-carved, hand-printed linocut relief print of Grinnell and two crows. The birds form a vertical shape that’s a nod to the campus’s Campanile, where falcons have lived since 2016.

At home in Berkeley as COVID raged, she said, “We were very intentional in my little family that finding joy in the little things of everyday life was fundamental, and one of those sources of joy was the Cal falcons. It became part of our breakfast routine to check on the falcons and their adventures.”

“I paid attention to how visually striking they are: their striped belly and legs, the sideburns, the contrast in their coloring and the pop of yellow,” said Pareto, whose art studio is aptly called The Wonderstruck Printmaker. “They are made to be art!”

This story was produced by UC Berkeley and first published on Berkeley News

Discovering that she could view the falcons’ daily lives while isolating at home gave alumna Sandy Lwi, who is a research psychologist in Berkeley, and her partner “a sense of freedom and adventure that we couldn’t experience otherwise,” she said, “and that was such a balm for the fear and uncertainty we all were experiencing at the time.” While in lockdown, she used the skills she’d learned in a watercoloring class to create a painting of Grinnell.

Grinnell was the inspiration for this watercolor by Sandy Lwi. Courtesy: Sandy Lwi

Jonathan “Jonny” Hale, a Berkeley undergraduate, chose to put falcon art onto his body.

Jonny Hale’s arm. Credit: Alberto Tirado

While on a trip to Tijuana last month, he had his right arm tattooed with a falcon, the Campanile and a branch of magnolia blossoms at the Last Temptation Tattoo Shop. It took three hours to plan the design with tattoo artist Alberto Tirado and about eight hours to complete. Hale said he’s followed the lives of Berkeley’s falcons since late 2019, when he decided to transfer to the campus.

While the falcon on his arm isn’t Grinnell, specifically, Hale said “it represents Grinnell, but also peregrine falcons, in general, … It represents the uniquely human virtues that the Cal falcons embody, which allow us to love their presence and mourn their passing.”

Cal Falcons has collected much of the falcon artwork — some of it from as far away as Seattle, Texas and China — and placed it on an Instagram reel. The group of raptor experts and volunteers discovered many of these paintings and photos when artists posted their work on social media, then tagged Cal Falcons.

Where art and science connect

“This piece is most obviously inspired by Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagaw,’” said Meg Shriber, a recent Berkeley graduate who works at LinkedIn and is an aspiring children’s book author. “And, of course, I had to include the Campanile falcons! … In the original, … it looks like the looming wave is going to drown Mt. Fuji … until you realize it’s a trick of forced perspective, and that the mountain will be fine after the wave crashes. It’s a nice reminder that we are able to endure things that seem impossibly challenging.” Credit: Meg Shriber

Many of the artists captivated by Berkeley’s falcons aren’t just nature-lovers, they’re also students of or experts in the natural sciences.

Artist Grace Millsap, a wildlife biology student at Texas A&M University, aspires to be an urban wildlife biologist, and that’s why she has followed the adventures of Annie, Grinnell and Alden, Annie’s new mate.

“Animals that find ways to thrive in urban settings are fascinating to me,” said Millsap, who especially loves to draw native North American species. “Cities have never been particularly friendly places for wildlife to live in, but some wildlife do it anyway. Those animals take a lot of city-specific risks, but they adapt to them and learn how to best thrive in that habitat.

“Grinnell’s death was a reminder of those risks, … but his life was a testament to his ability to navigate them as well as any human.”

Grace Millsap created this piece on April 1, the day after Grinnell died, using an app called Procreate. The strong bond between Grinnell (above) and Annie is emphasized. Millsap added lyrics from “Mars” by Sleeping at Last. The Texas A&M student said they’re “especially fitting, considering (Grinnell’s) story of rehabilitation; he was able to be rereleased after he healed, but nature had other plans.” Courtesy: Grace Millsap

Walnut Creek resident Lora Roame, a wildlife biologist and a volunteer with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory’s banding program, said that for her, “art has been a powerful tool to observe nature more closely.” Drawing and painting wildlife, she said, has helped her improve her skills as a naturalist, exercise her observational abilities and get curious about the world around her.

“I feel very fortunate to have a small window into the lives of these falcons,” said Roame, who has done numerous sketches of Berkeley’s falcons, “and they continue to be a source of joy and inspiration for me and my art.”

Having the fastest member of the animal kingdom in her own backyard — peregrines can clock 240 mph doing high-speed dives for prey— turned wildlife photographer Bridget Ahern, an Oakland resident, into a regular visitor to the university.

She said she’s learned to wait patiently to shoot the falcons’ “interactions in flight, whether it is the fledglings playing talon tag, the adults carrying prey with the fledglings following, prey exchanges between the adults and the fledglings, and even the interaction with the interlopers.

Wildlife photographer Bridget Ahern. Credit: Dorothy Hearst

“For me, it is the art of discovery — being in a natural environment and using my senses to observe what is happening around me. I often say that I am a reverse birder, meaning that I photograph the birds and then go home and consult bird books to see what I have photographed.”

Webcams give a rare, inspiring view

Salinas resident Andersen Hubbard, age 6 1/2, “likes the falcons because they’re easily accessible for him to check what they’re up to,” said his mom, Kayla Otteson. “We check on them often. He thinks it’s sad that they eat birds, but he understands, and he does like to watch them hunt and fly.” Credit: Kayla Otteson
Andersen’s paper-and-cardboard falcon art. Credit: Kayla Otteson

In his hometown of Salinas, 6 1/2-year-old Andersen Hubbard can’t see the falcons in person, the way Ahern can. But this spring, he patiently watched the webcam on the nest box, where Annie had laid three eggs. As he waited, he constructed the nest, the eggs and Annie out of construction paper and recycled cardboard.

The young boy’s artwork, sent to Cal Falcons by his mom, Kayla Otteson, “made my day,” said Lynn Schofield, a staff biologist for The Institute for Bird Populations who also runs education and outreach for Cal Falcons. “I like that it’s an interactive piece — super-creative.”

Maddy Donahue is much further away, in Qingdao, China. Born and raised in Berkeley, she’s beginning a career overseas in illustration, having recently graduated with a master’s degree from Savannah College of Art and Design. She loves Beatrix Potter’s characters and said she hopes “to make children’s books that focus on animals, fairy tales and the natural world around them.”

Donahue follows the Berkeley falcons on the nest webcam, as well as Cal Falcons’ Instagram posts, but also learns the latest news — “it’s like a bird soap opera!” she said — from her mom, Christina Tarr, a librarian at Berkeley Law and a Cal Falcons volunteer. When Grinnell died, Donahue painted a picture of him and posted it on social media: “I couldn’t let him go without paying tribute,” she said.

“I wanted this particular pose of [Grinnell] soaring overhead,” said Maddy Donahue, whose mom, Christina Tarr, is a cataloging librarian at Berkeley Law and a Cal Falcons volunteer. “I used photos from Cal Falcons’ Instagram, and also some from other photographers who study these falcons, to get his features right.” Courtesy: Maddy Donahue

In Seattle, Ning Wan, a product manager at Microsoft, also watches the Berkeley falcons remotely. So does her mother in Lafayette, where the two sheltered in place after Wan’s school, Columbia University, sent students home in March 2020 to study remotely.

When Grinnell was found dead in downtown Berkeley this spring, Wan, who by then was living in Washington, turned to her mom to process her emotions. “I didn’t know how to explain it to my friends,” she said. Creating digital art about the raptor’s death — a type of journal entry, “storytelling with an emotional narrative,” said Wan — helped.

“I started something about Grinnell in the evening of the day he died and posted it on Instagram,” said Ning Wan, a product manager at Microsoft. Courtesy: Ning Wan

“Artists are people who are naturally sensitive and on the emotional side. It’s not hard to imagine there’s a good overlap between artists and people with a soft spot for animals,” she said. Wan plans to find a way to use these traits for the greater good.

“Especially in the age of climate change, we all need to have our place in understanding the situation of our world and how we’re going to help it,” she said. “I want to find a place in my skill set to connect to the natural world and to other people through art.”

“I made this painting of Grinnell a couple years ago, after I became a little more stationary,” said Lynn Schofield, a staff biologist with The Institute for Bird Populations who also manages education and outreach for Cal Falcons. “I’m not in the field in the way I used to be, but I’m still doing research and watching nature.” Her young son, Vireo helped her with the background. Courtesy: Lynn Schofield

See more falcon art and falcon artists at Berkeley News.