Where are the chicks? - Page 5

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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"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.