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Artists near and far find inspiration in UC Berkeley’s peregrine falcons

By Gretchen Kell

A black and white, hand-carved linoleum print by Berkeley artist and alumna Irenka Pareto shows a Berkeley falcon in the middle with a crow above and below it.

“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. (Photo by 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!”

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.

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

A painting of a falcon by Lauren Helton.

This digital painting of Annie, done on a denim-textured background, is by Lauren Helton, a staff biologist at The Institute for Bird Populations who also is its scientific illustrator.

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

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.

Grinnell the falcon starts lifting off the ground, his wings heading toward the outstretched position, after being released on the hill next to the Lawrence Hall of Science following his stay at the Lindsay Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital in fall 2021.

On Nov. 17, 2021, wildlife photographer Bridget Ahern captured Grinnell taking off for the bell tower after he was treated for injuries at Lindsay Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital. (Photo by Bridget Ahern)

“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.”

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.

“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

Andersen Hubbard, age 6 1/2, cuts construction paper at a table in his home in Salinas. He's working on an art project about Berkeley's falcons.

Andersen Hubbard, age 6 1/2 cuts construction paper for an art project about Berkeley’s falcons at his home in Salinas. (Photo by 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 an 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.”

A painting by Grace Millsap shows falcons Annie and Grinnell on a vibrant purple background nearly touching each other.

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.”

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.

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.

“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.”