Thousands of us are glued to the online dramas of two peregrines on the Cal Falcons webcam, but it is just the start of what tech can do for bird studies, writes Annalee Newitz
30 March 2022
A FEW weeks after officials in California issued the first stay-at-home orders of the pandemic, back in 2020, something amazing happened on the internet. Well, not on the internet exactly – it happened in a gravel box high up on a bell tower, while thousands of us tuned in by webcam to see two peregrine falcons snuggling their freshly hatched chicks. Over the next few months, we watched the Cal Falcons webcam as the tiny chicks grew into fierce adults. The sight was a balm. It was a scientific wonder as well.
Peregrines were locally extinct in many parts of North America 50 years ago, and endangered throughout the world, after the pesticide DDT nearly wiped them out. Now, thanks to decades of conservation efforts, the raptors are making homes in our cities, even in a noisy bell tower in the middle of the University of California, Berkeley, campus.
“People have contacted me and said watching is our one solace during these huge events,” says Lynn Schofield, a founder of the Cal Falcons project and a biologist at the Institute for Bird Populations in Petaluma, California. She and her husband Sean Peterson, an environmental researcher at Syracuse University in New York, worked with a team to build the birds’ nest in 2017. Then, in 2019, they crowdfunded the Cal Falcons webcam to educate the public about urban wildlife. The birds have returned every year to rear a new clutch of young.
The pair named the falcons Annie and Grinnell, and post videos from their lives, with scientific explanations for their generally adorable, often bloodthirsty, behaviour. They also host livestreams to take audience questions at key moments in the birds’ lives.
Right before the 2022 egg-laying season, which lasts roughly from March to May, Annie and Grinnell’s lives suddenly became a soap opera. More peregrines were encroaching on their territory and Grinnell was attacked by the interlopers. With an injured wing, foot and beak, he fell to the ground and was discovered by nature-lovers, who brought him to a local wildlife hospital. It took a month for him to recover, and while he was gone, Annie began to court other males.
All of us watching the Cal Falcons cam were riveted. Would Annie wait long enough for Grinnell’s triumphant return? Would she even want him after his defeat? Although female peregrines are twice as large as males, and far more dangerous, they still need strong partners.
At last, Grinnell was well enough to return, and Annie seemed to accept him. They bowed their heads to each other and chirruped (classic courtship behaviour) and the webcam even captured them mating. But then Annie abruptly disappeared for more than a week – unheard of during laying season. Grinnell began courting a new young female, and Schofield and Peterson sadly informed the Cal Falcons community that they assumed Annie had died or left the territory.
The very next day, Annie reappeared at the nest, much to the watchers’ delight. Schofield and Peterson held a livestream to explain what was happening. Over the past couple of weeks, Annie has been in the nest a lot, and it looks as if she is back to stay.
The webcam is just the beginning in terms of what technology can do for the study of birds. Schofield says “most birds lead a double life”, nesting for a few months, and then migrating across huge distances. That is why she is working with groups like Motus, a non-profit organisation that uses radio telemetry to track birds in motion. Researchers attach tiny radio transmitters to animals, and then rely on a network of scientists and amateurs to set up receivers that pick up signals from the tagged creatures (see page 43 for more on tracking animals). The result is a map of where birds like Annie go when they aren’t rearing babies.
“We need to know where the wildlife is if we’re going to conserve it,” says Schofield. “That’s the constant difficulty of studying birds. They exist on continental scales.” Eventually, she says, we will be able to use machine learning to analyse the radio signals for common bird behaviours like hunting and nesting.
These days, most of Schofield’s research focuses on how wildlife is affected by climate change and fire – pretty grim subjects. That is why the webcam is so important: it is evidence that conservation research can pay off. In just 50 years, the nearly extinct peregrine has become populous enough to spawn soap operas. Plus, Annie and Grinnell’s fans have formed a brigade of citizen conservationists, including children who may become the next generation of environmental scientists. The Cal Falcons cam, says Schofield, “makes a big difference – it reminds me that all of this work is worthwhile”.
Update: After this article was published, the team running the Cal Falcon webcam reported on 31 March that Grinnell had been found dead in downtown Berkeley. While his cause of death was not known, they believe he was probably struck by a car. They are, they write, “devastated and heartbroken”.
What I’m reading
How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the rise of the statistical individual by Dan Bouk
What I’m watching
Our Flag Means Death, a delightful comedy series about the not-so-dread pirate Stede Bonnet.
What I’m working on
A podcast episode about animal communication.
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