Recently, Noreen Weeden, a volunteer director with the Golden Gate Audubon Society, heard an old, familiar call: “chi-ca-go!” The clatter and clucking came from six California quail, a plump, ground-dwelling and charismatic bird that was once ubiquitous in San Francisco. Weeden recorded their presence near Skyline College in San Bruno, and noted that the area is surrounded with coyote brush and lupin.
“It was really exciting to see them,” she told me. “I remember when there were quail in the Presidio and in Golden Gate Park. It’s sad to notice over time that a species is disappearing.”
Weeden, a regular participant in the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, has witnessed changes in The City’s bird populations over time. The annual event is an opportunity to bring awareness to species in decline and celebrate populations that are recovering. The 130 volunteers participating in San Francisco’s Christmas Bird Count spotted a locally rare rock sandpiper at Heron’s Head Park, the black, velvety wings of a scarlet tanager near the San Francisco Zoo, and a long-eared owl in Pacifica.
But there were some notable absences from the count. Volunteers did not find any wood ducks or Ridgway’s rails, a bird that’s in danger of extinction. And, although Weeden spotted the bobbing plumes of California quail in San Bruno, the designated bird of both the state and The City remains locally extinct within San Francisco limits.
“Every Christmas bird count we try to find whether that little quail is coming back,” Pam Young, the executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, told me. “To lose it as our common neighbor is very concerning.”
The loss of our local California quail is even more concerning given how common they used to be in San Francisco. In July 1846, Edward Cleveland Kemble, the editor of The City’s first newspaper, the California Star, recalled hearing innumerable quail in the dense brush that used to cover the corner of Jackson Street and Grant Avenue. In 1902, ornithologist Florence Merriam Bailey wrote that the “brushy parts of Golden Gate Park abound with quail, and from the benches one can watch the squads of plump hen-like creatures as they move about with stately tread or stand talking socially in low monosyllables.”
Today, these squads are gone. The call of “chi-ca-go” no longer echoes on city streets and in parks. San Francisco has lost a long-time resident, and future generations could forget it even existed at all. This is how species inch closer and closer to extinction.
Thankfully, the Christmas Bird Count offers an annual opportunity to remember and reorganize to support the habitats birds need. Volunteers have reported increased bird abundance in the restored areas of El Polín Spring in the Presidio, Heron’s Head Park and the bison paddocks in Golden Gate Park, according to the Golden Gate Audubon Society. At Pier 94, trash cleanup and invasive species removal has brought back the Black oystercatcher — a bird not spotted in San Francisco for years.
“There is hope for restoring the California quail and other species,” Weeden told me. “Plants that were here historically are beautiful and they function for the animals — they provide food and a place to nest and rest in. It’s a way to encourage a variety of species in The City.”
A broader effort among San Franciscans to plant native plant species could help invite old friends, such as the California quail, and other wildlife back to our city. There are opportunities to green our own sidewalks and backyards, as well as urge city leaders to make space for more native habitats. Keeping cats indoors and dogs on leashes near sensitive habitats also creates a safer environment for threatened birds and mammals.
“The quail are nearby and would love to come back,” Young told me. “Encourage everyone to think about choosing native plants instead of non-native plants and you’d be amazed about what an invitation that becomes. The birds will just show up.”
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