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.