Where are the chicks?

Where are the chicks?

quail

A half dozen California quail — all males — are all that remain in the once-teeming Presidio. What does the plight of the official state bird say about wildlife management in San Francisco?

By Amanda Witherell

It’s a warm, blue-sky day in late November, and about 35 people are gathered outside one of the National Park Service buildings in the Presidio, trading tales of where and when they last saw California quail. Point Reyes is named most frequently. The Marin Headlands get a few nods from the bird enthusiasts. Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park raises a minor cheer. Someone mentions “Quail Commons” in the Presidio, and an “Ooh” ripples around the circle, but it turns out the sighting was a while ago.

The enthusiastic volunteers, mostly bird lovers and Presidio neighbors, have turned out for today’s annual Quail Habitat Restore-a-Thon, an event aimed at transforming Quail Commons, the quarter-acre sliver of property located behind the Public Health Service Hospital on the western edge of the Presidio, into the national park’s premier quail habitat.

And the handful of quail that still live in the Presidio will surely appreciate it — although they might have a better time if only there were some ladies around.

Unfortunately, there aren’t. After a long morning of trimming back trees and planting sprouts of native coffee berry and coyote bush, Damien Raffa, a natural resources educator for the Presidio, confirms all the rumors that have been raked up with the weeds: the quail population has reached a new low. There are just six remaining in the Presidio. And yes, they’re all male.

The demise of the local quail population sounds like something only bird nerds would be fluffing their feathers over, but the strange thing is that the birds didn’t just fly away while the binoculars were trained elsewhere. A concerted effort to save the city’s quail population was made by multiple parties, costing thousands of dollars and using hundreds of work hours.

In 2000 the Board of Supervisors named the sociable fowl with the cunning head plumage the official bird of San Francisco. Since the informal inception of the Habitat Restore-a-Thon in the late ’90s, the number of volunteers has increased more than fivefold, and hundreds of park staff hours have been spent restoring habitats to the quail’s particular standards.

The Golden Gate Audubon Society dropped $15,000 on a Quail Restoration Plan and budgets $6,000 a year for the project. In the Presidio education has included a Web site, bright yellow “Quail Area” bumper stickers, and road signs in sensitive areas warning drivers to watch out for the little ground-loving birds. For the past two years biological monitors have been hired by the Presidio Trust to study the precious few remaining quail, with the hopes of pinpointing why they’re disappearing.

So why are the plump little fowl more commonly found trussed in gravy on sterling platters in some of the Embarcadero’s finer eating establishments than nesting under scrubby bushes among the windswept dunes on the western side of the city?

What went wrong? And what does it say about how the Presidio and other natural areas in the city are being managed?

PRESIDIO PRIORITIES

A mere 20 years ago, the state bird of California, Callipepla californica, was so bountiful in the Presidio that the average bike ride down Battery Caulfield or along Land’s End yielded at least one sighting.

“Brush rabbits, wrentits, Western screech owls, and the California quail” are the common wildlife listed off by Josiah Clark, a San Francisco native who spent his childhood scrambling around the Presidio with his binoculars. He’s now a wildlife ecologist and runs an environmental consulting company called Habitat Potential. “Those were once ‘can’t-miss’ species when I was a kid. Now I’m more likely to find a vagrant bird from the East Coast than a wrentit or a screech owl in the Presidio.”

Since the former US Army base was decommissioned and opened to the public, the wrentit and screech owl have disappeared, and the quail are flying the coop too, despite the protective national-park status of the city’s largest natural area.

“Sometimes I think about the irony of it,” says Dominik Mosur, a former biological monitor for the Presidio Trust who still birds in the national park once or twice a week. “The Presidio Trust was founded in 1998, at the same time habitat restoration for the quail really started happening. The more people got involved in somewhat of a misguided manner, the less successful it’s become.”

Having a species of animal disappear from a national park is very unusual, according to Peter Dratch, who oversees the Endangered Species Program for the National Park Service. “It’s a rare event for a species in a national park to become locally extirpated,” he says. Just three national parks have lost an animal out of the thousand endangered and threatened species he tracks.

Mosur is concerned that economic interests are trumping ecological needs in the Presidio. “I’m not saying that ecologists who work for the trust want to see the quail extinct,” Mosur says. “But I think their bosses wouldn’t mind. Preserving nature and making money are really conflicting things. You can’t make any money off of an open lot of sagebrush with some quail in it, but you can make quite a bit of money converting Letterman hospital into a lot of apartments.”

And making money is the bottom line for this national park. The Presidio, unlike any other national park in the country, is forced to fully fund itself, according to a mandate proposed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi in the mid-’90s. Guardian investigations and editorials over the years have raised questions about the viability of this arrangement. The cash cow is supposed to be the abundance of housing and development opportunities made possible by the abandoned army barracks and buildings, which means this national park is in the business of real estate, not natural resources.

While an annual $20 million federal allocation has been meted to the park during its teething stages, the Presidio Trust is tasked with weaning itself off that funding by 2013. Halfway through the 15-year deadline, the 2006 annual report for the trust shows that revenue is up just 4.5 percent while overhead costs have jumped 22 percent from last year’s numbers.

So making money is more important than ever. The doubtful are invited to trawl the Presidio’s Web site, where it’s easy to find information about housing rentals and development opportunities, the new restaurants that have opened, and the free coffee now available at transit hubs, but only a deep search will reveal anything about birds, trees, and flowers. A click on the “Nature in the City” link scores you a picture of the very common and abundant great horned owl. If you want to “read more,” you get a blurb about mushrooms. The “Save the Quail” link, which was up as recently as this fall, has disappeared, just like the bird itself.

At press time, spokespeople for the Presidio Trust had not answered our questions about quail habitats or future restoration plans, despite repeated inquiries.

To be fair, the decimation of local quail is a phenomenon not exclusive to the Presidio. The population in Golden Gate Park has also dropped to a dangerous low. Annual citywide “Christmas Bird Counts,” conducted by the Golden Gate Audubon Society, show more than 100 quail 10 years ago but as few as 40 just 5 years ago. Last year there were 27. This year promises to have even fewer.

“When a population gets low, it’s easier for it to get really low really fast,” Clark says.

Most local bird-watchers and ecologists agree that it’s been a collision of conditions such as increased predation, decimated habitats, and unsavory, incestuous mating stock that has meant the gallows for the quail. But poor management decisions on behalf of the people in power have been the tightened noose.

SAVE THE QUAIL

Mention quail to anyone in management at Golden Gate Audubon, the Presidio Trust, or the city’s Recreation and Park Department, and you’ll be directed to Alan Hopkins, who has lived and watched birds in the city since 1972 and is the most widely regarded local expert on quail.

Initially, it wasn’t one of his favorite species. “They were a little too cute,” Hopkins says. “But the more I started to study them, I saw how social they were. They’re fascinating, and they were here way before we were.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that he really started making a special effort to look for them during his daily bird-watching. Within a few years he began to worry about the health of the local population as he saw an increase in predators like raptors and feral cats.

At the same time, habitats were decimated by an aggressive campaign to purge the parks of homeless people. This involved cutting back the deep underbrush where quail like to hide out. In addition, the preservation of tall, stoic trees such as cypress, pine, and eucalyptus has meant an increase in habitats for quail predators like hawks and ravens, which prefer to spot prey from a heightened roost. As these factors conspired, numbers continued to drop, and the breeding stock became more and more narrow, until the coveys were rife with incest.

While predation is always a possibility, it doesn’t start having a big effect until the quail take to the streets, driven by disrupted habitats and dismal mating prospects. Though not generally migratory birds, when a spot becomes inhabitable, quail have been known to move around the city using wild property edges for succor until they find another covey or place to roost. And in San Francisco, they really are in the streets. Quail can’t fly long distances, and they travel mostly on foot.

Two birds wearing leg bands left the unpalatable conditions of the Presidio and resurfaced in Golden Gate Park, which means the unappealing mating scenario and disrupted habitat drove them to negotiate several city blocks in search of greener pastures. “They probably went through people’s backyards,” Hopkins says. “That’s one of the reasons we think people need to preserve their backyards.”

But increased gentrification has destroyed these wild, backyard corridors, which have been the secret highways for wildlife through the city.

Hopkins started an education-and-restoration campaign called “Save the Quail” in the ’90s. His hope was that the more people were aware of the quail and the small things they could do to save them, like preserving certain plants in their yards and keeping their cats indoors, the more it would benefit the birds and the parks.

“If we can restore the quail, it’s a good harbinger of health in the city,” says Peter Brastow, director of Nature in the City, a nonprofit group that works to restore biodiversity in San Francisco by encouraging citizens to work and play in natural areas. “If we have great success with them, then we’re probably doing a lot for many other species too.”

And that, Brastow argues, is important for the health of the people who live here. “Connecting to nature should be a bona fide recreational activity. Going bird-watching, walking your dog on a leash, [and] doing stewardship are all ways for urbanites to reconnect with these threatened natural areas that need people to sustain them. People need nature. It’s a feedback loop.”

But, as is so often the case in San Francisco, for every pro, there’s a con.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

As the quail preservationists beseeched the city’s Rec and Park Department and the Presidio Trust for places to restore habitats, efforts were waylaid by the competing interests of feral cat fans and off-leash dog lovers.

“It really became a polarized issue,” says Samantha Murray, Golden Gate Audubon’s conservation director. “Unfortunately, quail have had a lot working against them for the last 20 years, and none of that helped.”

As arguments played out in public meetings, time ticked away for the birds, and the population continued to plummet. Eventually, a strip of unused land between Harding Park Golf Club and Lake Merced was granted as a new place for a quail habitat, even though it’s not an area where quail have ever been seen.

“It was a compromise,” Hopkins says.

In addition, a quail niche was carved out of a quarter-acre plot in the Presidio where a covey still existed. Dubbed Quail Commons, it became the locus of restoration efforts, with regular work parties weeding out nonnative invasive species and sowing new shoots of quail-approved plants.

It wasn’t long, however, before the plot became more of a poster child for the trust and less a place where effective restoration occurred. Hopkins and other local birders and ecologists proffered regular advice on what might work, but they say the trust depended too heavily on outside studies by experts and seized on a rigid formula rather than a fluctuating plan that responded to unexpected changes in the local ecology.

“Quail are dependent on a lot of nonnative species for food source and cover,” Hopkins says. In a burst of antipathy toward nonnative species, much of the Himalayan blackberry and wild radish, two of the quail’s favorite plants, were scourged from the parks. The native plants that replaced them provide a very limited diet for the birds.

“One bad year for those plants,” Hopkins says, “and the ability to eat is gone.”

He points out that providing water or food where necessary and introducing more birds when the population became so inbred could have been very effective.

“I think it’s naive to think if you simply restore habitat, it’s going to be enough,” he says. He admits that contradicts statements he’s made in the past, but that’s the nature of the beast when it comes to ecology. No specific formula is guaranteed to work in every situation, which is what, some scientists say, makes local knowledge so valuable.

“Local knowledge is huge,” says Karen Purcell, leader of the Urban Bird Studies project at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, which uses “citizen scientists” from around the country to supplement its bird research. “People who know their birds and what’s going on in their areas contribute information that many times we could never get.”

To maintain reliability, the lab gathers as much data as possible from as many sources as are available, so that rogue or ill-informed data is diluted.

“There are so many people like myself who’ve spent so much time watching this place and the animals that live in it. People from as close as Marin couldn’t even say the things that we know,” says Hopkins, who’s been hired by the trust to consult for a few projects but not granted any regular position or much compensation for his expertise.

“The people I’ve had to deal with through the Presidio Trust and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy try to do their best, but I always get the feeling there are conflicting interests,” he says. “There’s always the budget. There are always aesthetic issues.”

When it comes to action, things drag at the federal level much like they do when negotiating with competing interests around the city. “As far as the National Park Service goes, they’ve got to have a study,” Clark says. “And the study has to be done by qualified academics. That’s the way the system works.”

This past year’s Presidio biological monitor, Chris Perry, describes himself as “not really a birder,” even though “99.5 percent of my job was monitoring quail.” Perry has a master’s degree, and the bulk of his career has been spent doing a variety of environmental work. “It doesn’t require someone to be a birder to be a good ecologist.”

Perry agrees with the locals on one contentious issue: efforts to reintroduce quail into the Presidio are long overdue. Hopkins says he hoped for reintroduction years ago, but politics invaded.

“They hemmed and hawed about it. It costs money,” he says. One of the problems with reintroduction, he adds, is that you can’t just “open the cage and let them loose.” Quail are social birds, and like any new kid in town, the birds are more likely to succeed if there are some old-timers around who know the local ropes.

That may be a problem for the other primary habitat-restoration area in the city, Harding Park, where no quail have been spotted.

“We’d like to do reintroduction a few years from now,” says Murray of Golden Gate Audubon, which for the past three years has been working to establish a habitat there. “If we do it — invest the resources and time — we want it to work.”

In the past year the group has decided to ramp up the effort, hiring a part-time volunteer coordinator, Bill Murphy, to oversee the planting of lupine and coffee berry and the weeding out of English ivy and ice plant.

The hope is that “if you build it, they will come,” Murphy says of the site. But it doesn’t take an expert to realize that Harding Park is far from being a perfect place for quail. Tall cypresses dominate, and the ground is thick with heavy wood chips and duff, rather than the sand quail prefer.

Brush piles have been another issue, falling into the aesthetics category. Quail experts have long advocated them as an easy way to naturally house species. If done properly, the small mountains of sticks, logs, and branches — resembling something you’d take a match to for a first-class bonfire — can have a screening effect, with openings large enough for a quail to squeeze in and take cover but too small for a pursuing cat or dog.

“At Land’s End I suggested they put up brush piles, which are very beneficial, and they agreed to do it,” Hopkins says. “But the landscape architect they hired is complaining because they think these brush piles are unsightly.”

In addition to being unsightly, the ones that have been built are too uniform, resembling the neatly laid bare poles of a teepee. According to Clark, they are essentially ineffective.

“The brush piles in the Presidio are like skeletons,” he says. “It looks like a brush pile, but it’s not actually serving any purpose. They’re almost analogous to the whole structure of the restoration program.”

ISLANDS AMONG ISLANDS

Consider the boundaries of the city: water laps the edges on three sides. San Francisco not only thinks and acts like an island — it practically is one. The parks and natural areas, separated by streets and concrete and scattered throughout one of the most densely populated cities in the country, are oases for humans as they shed the stresses of busy workdays. They’re also habitats for wildlife who began life on this peninsula and have no way to really leave it.

Those interests are sometimes in concert, sometimes in competition.

The Presidio is the largest of the islands, and the fact that the 1,400 acres were once an army base with stringent rules about access, populated by a military with a predictable routine, worked to the advantage of local wildlife for many years.

“There weren’t as many cats, no off-leash dogs, not as much street traffic.” Hopkins says. “Army bases across the country are a lot of our best habitats because of benign neglect.”

“Military activities are actually easier for many of these species to deal with than an area with wide public access,” says John Anderson, a professor of ornithology at College of the Atlantic who specializes in island avian populations. “It serves as a ‘habitat island.’ This is why you have nesting birds at the end of the runways at JFK. As long as you get a jet taking off every 30 seconds, it doesn’t have much impact. On the other hand, if you have a jet making a low pass over a nesting colony once a summer, it is likely to cause a lot of disturbance.”

If there’s the equivalent of a jet flying low over the Presidio, it would be the increase of hikers, bikers, park staff, and volunteers regularly traipsing through areas that until recently never saw much action.

And one place that’s stood empty and secluded for years is about to see an enormous influx of people.

The Public Health Service Hospital is slated to become condominiums with 250 to 400 market-rate units. It’s the largest housing development in the park, and the Presidio Trust is relying on at least $1 million in net revenue from the project: it’s a keystone in the overall plan for financial sustainability.

However, the decrepit building is located next to the oldest relic scrub oak habitat in Presidio Hills. “This area has been here since time began,” Clark says on a recent tour through that tucked-away corner of the park.

Indeed, the overgrown dunes have an ancient, haunted feel. Listening to the unique song of the white-crowned sparrow, standing among the small scrub oaks and some of the rarest plants in the Presidio, it’s possible to forget the nearby high-rises, highways, and houses and imagine a time when the whole western edge of the city was little more than acres and acres of windswept sand and scrubby brush.

“This is the first place I had interactions with park stewards and saw them doing something that worked,” Clark says. “They took down a couple of trees, and people complained, but so much diversity popped up where those trees were. Pines can be great and support a lot of birds, but in an intact, native ecosystem they aren’t very helpful. This area is a relic, and quail are a part of that relic.”

It’s clear that this original setting would be perfect for quail and anything else is just a compromise. The soil is loose and sandy, perfect for the dirt baths that clean their feathers. The ground cover is negotiable for their small stature, but there’s good shelter and ample food and water.

We’re just down the hill from Quail Commons, where the last six Presidio quail live, but there’s a lot of unfriendly activity between here and there — a road, a fence, a parking lot, and a dump where construction debris is regularly tossed.

“These two areas would be so much more valuable if they were connected,” Clark says.

Through the trees that line the hills, it’s possible to see the back of the old abandoned hospital. It remains to be seen if more quail will be able to live here among more people and all the things that come with them — dogs and cats, trash and cars. Will the new inhabitants take quail education to heart?

As if they’re harbingers of what’s to come, two joggers with a baby stroller and a dog cruise by. As the dog leaps through the scrub, the couple pass by without a glance at the Quail Habitat sign.

Originally published January 17, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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