San Francisco’s quest to bring back the California quail

Restoration efforts promising, challenging for The City’s official bird

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared the California quail San Francisco’s official bird in 2000. At the time, The City’s population of quails had plummeted from 1,500 in 1900 to just 12.

The declaration was a last-ditch effort to save The City’s once-abundant quail population from disappearing altogether as a steady drumbeat of urbanization pushed into parkland across San Francisco.

But by many measures, that effort failed. The California quail became locally extinct in 2018 after birders lost sight of Ishi, the last remaining quail, which they named after the last known member of California’s Native American Yahi tribe.

“Sadly, a number of things ultimately resulted in their demise,” said Lewis Stringer, associate director of natural resources for the Presidio Trust. “What we think is probably inbreeding and major pressure from predators.”

At the time, he said, feral cats, raptors and rats preyed on The City’s quails, and a sharp drop-off of “mesopredators,” like coyotes, meant that quail killing went largely unabated. “That was the big letdown,” said Stringer. “We thought we had a chance to save them, and we were working towards it. But by that point, we were just too low in our numbers.”

Now, a renewed effort is underway to return this plucky ground dweller to city parks. Two new studies suggest that the Presidio’s long-term restoration efforts are paying off and signal the park’s potential to once again serve as an urban home for the California Quail.

Although quails have not yet been reintroduced to city parks, these studies give ecologists hope that these birds could once again be a viable part of The City’s ecosystem in years to come if habitat expansion across The City continues.

“As parks get larger, the ability for quail populations to persist over time improves,” said Kelly Iknayan, an environmental scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and author of one of the studies. “We do have, with Golden Gate Park and Presidio, decent sized parks there.”

Another key component to quail survival: coyotes. As ecologists like Springer have worked to transform the Presidio from a paved military base to a thriving hub of biodiversity, coyotes have returned voluntarily.

A banded male quail on a tree stump in The Presidio in July 2006. (Courtesy The Presidio Trust)

This is good news for quails since coyotes help manage predators like raccoons and rats. “We have restored enormous amounts of habitat,” said Stringer. “Since then, we have had… a major conversion of invasive species to native scrub habitat, which is a huge change in those 15 years since they went extinct.”

These changes are not just beneficial to quail or coyotes. A recent study from the nonprofit Point Blue examined 16 species of birds in the Presidio from 2010 to 2020, finding that 80% of populations were considered stable, with eight species increasing with the park’s improved habitats.

Still, ecological restoration is slow work, and these projects are being completed with the backdrop of intensifying climatic changes and widespread biodiversity loss. Birds, often thought of as the harbingers of ecological health, are declining precipitously across North America, studies show. Climate change is shifting the range in which birds can survive.

And while the California quail has adapted relatively well to urban environments and can survive in both hot and cold conditions, the National Audubon Society warns that spring heat waves and increasing wildfires put this bird at risk.

“When you look at all of these things, it can feel kind of dire sometimes,” said Kristen Dybala, a principal ecologist at Point Blue. “But I think what’s great is that we do repeatedly see evidence that restoration works.”

Ecologists including Stringer say that returning wildness to urban areas is vital to the health of The City and its residents.

“It is an act of love for the place that you live,” he said. “By being able to engage and bring life back to a place that was pushed out because we were thoughtless about these things in the past — this is a spiritual endeavor as much as it is a scientific one.”

jwolfrom@sfexaminer.com

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