Podcast: Peregrine falcons, zipping through campus at top speeds, are here to stay

The peregrine falcons that first made a home on UC Berkeley’s Campanile last year get a lot of attention every spring when their babies hatch. But it’s also amazing to watch the adults in action. At speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, peregrines are the fastest animal in the world — three times faster than a cheetah. Mary Malec, a volunteer raptor nest monitor for the East Bay Regional Park District, describes a time when the mama peregrine chased a pigeon through unknowing crowds on campus. 

Read the transcript. 

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peregrine falcon flying

The female peregrine falcon flies toward her home on UC Berkeley’s Campanile. (UC Berkeley photo by Maria Garcia Alvarez)

Following is a written version of the podcast episode: 

The peregrine falcons that first made a home on UC Berkeley’s Campanile last year get a lot of attention every spring when their babies hatch. But it’s also amazing to watch the adults in action.

“I’ve seen her twice go out and once bring food back in 20 seconds.”

That’s Mary Malec. She’s a volunteer raptor nest monitor for the East Bay Regional Park District. Both years, after the chicks hatched, she organized what she calls “fledgewatch,” a week when volunteers spend all day waiting for the chicks to take their first flight.

The three peregrine chicks — Californium, Lawrencium and Berkelium — practice flying and landing on the Campanile.

The three peregrine chicks — Californium, Lawrencium and Berkelium — practice flying and landing on the Campanile. (Photo by Mary Malec)

That’s when she saw the adult female hunting. She says, hands down, it’s one of her favorite peregrine moments.

“She came off the tower in a stoop, went behind this building out of sight and a few seconds later, she came straight down the sidewalk at eye level, chasing a pigeon,” says Malec. “You could hear this noise of the wings of both the peregrine and the pigeon. It was so noisy.”

“How fast do you think she was going?” I ask.

“Well, she wasn’t going her maximum speed, but she was… I don’t know… a hundred miles an hour?”

The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal in the world — three times faster than a cheetah. They can reach speeds of more than 200 miles per hour when they dive for prey. This diving is called a stoop.

Peregrines also have incredible eyesight. “They have two fovias, which are focal points, so they can see the overall environment and they can focus on a bird at the same time.” 

They kill their prey, which is almost always other birds, in mid-air. If the prey doesn’t die on impact, peregrines have a little notch on their beak that they use to sever its spinal cord.

In urban areas, peregrines eat a lot of pigeons, because, you know, they’re everywhere. But they also eat other birds. “Mourning dove, jay, starling, killdeer, coot, acorn woodpecker, robin, crow…”

When chicks take their first flights, known as fledging, they fly well, but often land badly. That’s why Malec and her team sit and wait and watch all day every day until all of fledglings are flying and landing well. If one has a crash landing or gets trapped someplace, they’re ready to call for help.

A peregrine fledgling (U/46) got trapped on a ninth-floor courtyard of Evans Hall. Mary Malec holds it as it gets sprayed with water to prevent it from flying off in a panic after it's released it back onto the Campanile. They also spray water in its mouth to rehydrate it. (UC Berkeley photo by Maria Garcia-Alvarez)

A peregrine fledgling (U/46) got trapped on a ninth-floor courtyard of Evans Hall last month. Mary Malec caught it, took it Lindsay Wildlife to be assessed and released it the next day. To prevent it from flying off in a panic after its release, the team sprays it with water. They also spray water into its mouth to rehydrate it. (UC Berkeley photo by Maria Garcia Alvarez)

One of the fledglings recently got trapped in a courtyard in Evans Hall on campus. Mary called me with the news: “Hi Anne, it’s Mary Malec. U/46 ended up on the ninth floor of Evans in an inner courtyard. I caught it. We’re at Lindsay Wildlife right now and they’re assessing it. I don’t know if they’re going to let me return it today or maybe tomorrow, but just wanted to let you know. Bye.”

The fledgling was totally fine and Malec was able to release it back onto the Campanile the next day. But only after spraying it down with water, which it did not like at all. But they did it, so it wouldn’t fly off immediately in a panic after have been handled.

Both years, the campus asked for name suggestions for the new babies on our social channels. The names that won the vote for this year’s trio were Berkelium, Lawrencium and Californium, three elements discovered at Berkeley. Last year’s siblings were named Fiat and Lux after the campus’s motto.

Sadly, Lux died last year after flying into a balcony window of Evans Hall. Since then, Malec and other experts have installed bird-safe streamers to prevent a similar accident from happening again.

Berkelium, Californium and Lawrencium, now about 11 weeks old, could leave the area at any time. Peregrines usually travel about 30 to 50 miles away from their natal area, but could go as far as hundreds of miles away. It’s really hard to know.

And they probably won’t be back. They’d be seen as intruders and chased away.

Meanwhile, the adults will stick around, defending their prime territory with its great views and ample food supply. And if you’re lucky, you might even see one of them flash by you at top speeds chasing a very unlucky bird.

Learn more about the Campanile’s peregrine falcons on Berkeley News:

three peregrine chicks

A male peregrine falcon chick (front), another male (rear left) and female (right) were named Berkelium, Californium and Lawrencium by the public. (UC Berkeley photo by Maria Garcia Alvarez)

Glenn Stewart, a researcher with UC Santa Cruz’s Predatory Bird Research Group, banded the chicks with colleague Zeka Glucs.

Glenn Stewart, a researcher with UC Santa Cruz’s Predatory Bird Research Group, banded the chicks with colleague Zeka Glucs. (Photo by Maria Garcia Alvarez)

peregrine falcon chick wearing a band

One of the male peregrine chicks after it was banded (Photo by Mary Malec)

two peregrine chicks

The two male peregrine chicks huddle together. (Photo by Mary Malec)

bird-safe streamers

The campus installed bird-safe streamers on the east and west ends of the 10th floor balcony of Evans Hall to discourage the birds from flying in. (Photo by Mary Malec)

peregrine fledgling in tree

After Fiat fledges, she rests in a tree near Stephens Hall. (Photo by Mary Malec)

peregrine falcon chick

Peregrine falcon Lux in June (Photo by Mary Malec)