Where are the chicks? - Page 4

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?
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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.