One silver lining to 2020 is watching wildlife make the most of humans’ absence. But many species remain displaced, including the official bird of both San Francisco and the state. While the California quail’s unique call, “chi-ca-go!” was once familiar to San Franciscans, today, the plump, charismatic bird is considered locally extinct. The City’s populations noticeably plummeted in the 1990s and grassroots efforts to save the species failed.
“It was a tragedy because there were so many people invested in saving the quail,” Lew Stringer, the Presidio Trust’s associate director of natural resources, told me. “It’s a loss we would love to reverse.”
A reversal may be possible. The Presidio Trust is currently working with the San Francisco Estuary Institute to analyze the viability of reintroducing California quail. The urban park contains the right habitat. But creating a sustainable environment for the bird to thrive, as well as other species in the Presidio and beyond, depends a lot on the support of humans.
“We’re in the middle of an extinction crisis,” Michael Boland, chief of park development and visitor engagement for Presidio Trust, told me. “People need to re-focus their energy and think about what role they can play in stewarding biodiversity.”
Since acquiring the former military base in the 1990s, the Presidio Trust has offered a local response to the dramatic, global drops of bugs, birds and other wildlife. It removed tons of landfill and cement, planted native species and restored springs and wetlands. These unearthed sites became havens for butterflies and bees. Restored tidal marshes, like the newly-opened Quartermaster Reach Marsh, offer habitat for shorebirds and the rare Olympia oyster.
Hanging out with the Presidio’s banana slugs and red-tailed hawks is good for people too. Since March, trail use in the park increased by 40%, even without the usual influx of tourists. This isn’t surprising, given research that nature can reduce anger, fear and stress. Other studies have found that nature may also increase feelings of connection to a larger world, which can soothe our socially-distant souls.
Of course, if more adults and kids learn to appreciate nature, hopefully they’ll want to protect it too.
“If we can’t inspire and educate people, we’re kind of doomed,” Stringer told me. “The more that children are growing up in nature and appreciating it, the better caretakers they can be.”
This is why it’s critical to make species, such as the California quail, familiar and important to future generations before they are forgotten. The bird’s long-term survival depends, in part, on San Franciscans’ willingness to welcome it back.
For decades, increased development, fenced yards, exotic plants, pets and traffic in The City made it harder for coveys of California quail to survive. Eventually, populations were divided between Golden Gate Park and the Presidio. This genetic bottleneck threatened their viability, and a large number of outdoor cats, which preyed on the birds, made the situation worse. In 2008, Presidio officials turned its last remaining quail, Fajita, over to the San Francisco Zoo. Ishi, the lonely quail of Golden Gate Park, was last recorded in 2017.
Today, the Presidio’s coyotes may reduce pressure from cats (Although coyotes, hawks and other raptors may prey on quail themselves). The Presidio can also refresh the population with newly captured quails.
But it would be best if San Franciscans created conditions that would allow reintroduced California quail to thrive outside the Presidio. This includes being more mindful of pets, eliminating pesticides in yards, planting beneficial species and reducing driving or, at least, driving more slowly. By embracing nature in our neighborhoods, instead of designating it to parks and wilderness areas, humans can create a healthier environment for all life, including us.
“If there’s neighborhood buy-in, the benefits are multiple,” Pam Young, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, told me. “Then you have a much more stable ecosystem.”
Despite what we’ve seen in 2020, animals don’t need humans to shelter in their homes. It’s possible for biodiversity to thrive without a pandemic, as long as people stop seeing a divide between humans and nature.
“People are essential,” Boland told me. “They are not the problem. They are the solution.”
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.