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Raptor report: Berkeley birds and rodent wranglers

by Sam Lemonick
July 21, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 30


New elements spotted at Berkeley

There were just 10 peregrine falcons living in California when the state passed its endangered species act in 1970. Capable of speeds faster than 300 km per hour as they dive at pigeons, starlings, and other prey, peregrine falcons were some of the many victims of organochlorine pesticides like dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT).

Photograph of three peregrine falcon chicks.
Credit: Maria Garcia-Alvarez/UC Berkeley
Elemental: Falcon chicks in their nest.

Almost half a century later, California has a few hundred breeding pairs. Two of those falcons make their home atop the Campanile, the iconic clock tower at the University of California, Berkeley. Three chicks joined them this spring, and following a public poll, the hatchlings were named after three elements discovered in the cyclotron at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where particles flew faster than 3,000 km per second.

On a late-May evening, this member of the Newscripts gang grabbed some binoculars and joined volunteers watching to see if Berkelium, Californium, or Lawrencium would take flight. They were named according to their size. Lawrencium, the sole female, is the largest of this brood and named after the heaviest atom. Her brothers Berkelium and Californium are smaller, which is typical of male peregrine falcons.

None of them did fly that first night. But a few days later, Berkelium (whose namesake was identified in 1949) took the first plunge off the 100-meter-tall tower. It was somewhat less than graceful. He missed his landing on the first several attempts, instead sliding down the Campanile’s angled spire, but he did eventually stick it.

Californium (1950) flew two days later. Lawrencium (1961) took her time, but diligent observers eventually spotted her in the air about a week later.

Young falcons stay with their parents for six to eight weeks after they first fly, according to Mary Malec, a volunteer raptor nest monitor for the East Bay Regional Park District who led the fledge watch. Peregrine falcons can live 15 years in the wild. That’s somewhat shorter than californium-251’s half-life of 898 years, but it’s an eternity compared with lawrencium-260’s: three minutes.


Raptors replace rodenticides

Photograph of volunteers raising an owl box.
Credit: Consortium Media
Raptor roost: Boy Scouts raise an owl box.

DDT may be mostly gone, but pesticides still pose a threat to wild animals. California has taken steps to limit use of anticoagulant rodenticides that can also harm coyotes, mountain lions, and other predators who eat the poisons’ intended targets.

Karl Novak oversees 40 miles (64 km) of earthen levees and 56 dams in Ventura County. His agency wages a constant battle against ground squirrels and gophers whose burrows weaken those structures and jeopardize people and property downstream. Novak has relied on poisons in the past, but a study he completed recently reveals an intriguing alternative: raptors.

Novak’s team of county employees and volunteers replaced bait stations with bird perches and owl nesting boxes at a test site along one of his levees. After two years of monitoring, they reported that hawks and owls cut the number of burrows by half compared with rodenticides. Other California counties are interested in the results, Novak says.


In addition to protecting wildlife, Novak says replacing rodenticides with raptors could save the county $7,500 per mile ($4,688 per km) of levee each year. While other research has shown birds are effective for pest control, Novak says this is the first study showing they could replace poisons.

Will his department look into using other animals to help maintain the county’s infrastructure ? “We don’t have enough water down here for beavers, I don’t think,” Novak tells Newscripts.

Sam Lemonick wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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