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?
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.