Near dusk, you can often find Shirley Doell at Oakland Civic Center, staring at the tops of skyscrapers through her big telescope. But she isn’t spying on anyone – at least not any people. She’s on the lookout for Peregrine Falcons. They were on the brink of extinction a few decades ago, when there were only two breeding pairs left in California. But there are about 300 nests in the state now and they’ve started moving into cities.
I met up with Doell to find out what it’s like to be a bird of prey in the middle of urban Oakland. We didn’t get to spot any falcons, but I did get a unique perspective on the city.
It’s a Thursday afternoon and there are dozens of people by Oakland City Hall. There are friends meeting up after work, a man’s playing fetch with his dog, and a school group is taking a class photo. I joined the bustle to meet up with birder Shirley Doell. I ask if she’s spotted any.
“No birds today I’m afraid” she says, “They don’t always show up. They come and go, you just don’t know.”
Doell says that’s part of the deal. When birding, you’re on their schedule. Doell has been watching Falcons for over five years. She remembers when she first started seeing them.
“I had a job in Alameda on the estuary near the Fruitvale bridge back in the mid 1990s,” says Doell. “And there was a falcon at that time roosting on the bridge, not nesting at that time.”
There aren’t any Peregrine nests here, but there are a handful of spots that the falcons perch on. One of them is high-up in Oakland’s 99-year-old city hall. When they’re up there, they’re either looking for dinner or resting. Doell tells me, “they're loafing or hunting, that's all a falcon does 'cause they're a predatory bird.”
There’s something alluring to me about watching birds of prey, even if they are just loafing. I try to imagine being up in one of the ornate nooks, looking down on the little humans bustling around at the end of their workday. Being a falcon doesn’t sound too hard to me... Doell says that they’ve done well adapting to modern cities. The tall buildings mimic their original home on cliffs. Falcons are predatory and their primary diet is other birds. And in cities like Oakland, there is one bird that outnumbers all other.
“Pigeons,” says Doell. “Almost exclusively. They’re tasty, I gather. People eat 'em, too,” she says as she laughs.
There are plenty around today. Could I catch one? I eye a pigeon… But I feel like I’m not ready yet. We still hadn’t found any falcons to give me a good lesson. She says that they catch pigeons in mid-flight. After Peregrines spend the day scanning Downtown Oakland, hopefully they spot a pigeon flying through the plaza with a belly full of French fries. Then they can leap off their perch, use gravity to gather speed, then hook back and catch the pigeon from below.
“In watching falcons,” Doell says, “I've gained a lot more respect for pigeons than I had before. I was typically, you know, five years ago, I'd think of them as the flying rats from the city.”
She says pigeons are actually incredibly agile birds and they put up a heck of a fight. Definitely not a free lunch. She says once she saw a Peregrine slam one into a fountain, and the pigeon managed to take flight right out of the water!
“And then a soaking wet, slow moving pigeon is no match for a falcon,” Doell explains, “It got snatched in just a second or two after it took off. But I was saying ‘Wow! look at that pigeon go!’”
We wandered up San Pablo Avenue away from City Hall. Then Doell spotted something:
“There's a pair of ravens right there, on the corner of the lower building right there. I'll get the scope on 'em so you can see 'em.” She looked in. “One of them is preening the other,” that means cleaning and rearranging feathers, “Raven's are kind of cuddly birds.”
Doell says showing birds to passers-by is one of the things she likes about birding.
“People will stop and say "What are you doing?" - and they get to look at the birds and go ‘Wow!’”
I never thought about how Oakland is home to these wild birds the same way that it is home to me. I just get my hair cut at the barber rather than a perm on top of an office building.
Still, I feel like I came here to connect with a noble hunter, not with a stylist. Doell and I have been prowling around for an hour with no luck. The button at the crosswalk seems to be taunting us: “Wait...wait…”
“Just like we’re waiting for the Falcons,” says Doell.
Peregrine Falcons wait all day for the right moment to catch their dinner, if I want to know what it’s like to be one, then this is probably a good lesson. Doell and I call it a day. At least I got to imagine the city through a new, and very keen set, of eyes. It makes the city seem fresh, and leads me to wonder who else I share this city with and who I could meet if I just knew what to look for.