A Quail Comeback Is Coming to San Francisco, Y’all

The California quail is the official bird of SF — which could return to the Presidio after going locally extinct over three years ago.

We here at Underscore harp on and on (and on and on) about the importance of safeguarding biodiversity. Our slice of Northern California is lucky enough to call a slew of unique native wildlife — Mission blue butterflies, San Francisco garter snakes, one hella weird damselfly that thrives on Karla The Fog’s presence — home, but much of that fauna is dwindling.

Some of it has completely disappeared; the California quail is one such animal that’s been declared locally extinct in the past decade.

It’s not exactly clear when SF’s official bird went the way of the dodo bird, but the last quail became was considered locally extinct after birders lost sight of Ishi, the last remaining bird of the species recorded in city limits, back in 2018. The disappearance of Ishi, too, hints at an even greater threat: numbers of wildlife in urban parks have declined over the years, as the slow drumbeat of urbanization has led to dwindling populations, and then local extinction.

It’s a tough reality to swallow. But, alas, it’s a statistically appropriate truth, nonetheless. Though new research gathered from the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) and the Presidio Trust suggest that the iconic fowl can be successfully reintroduced to SF. And the Presidio Trust appears to be the most effective place to start.

Why? The area’s resurgence of coyotes helps keep populations of the birds’ primary predators down.

“Looking at urban parks across the state, researchers found that parks with coyotes had a 73% higher likelihood of being occupied by quail than similar parks without coyotes,” reads a statement from the Presidio Trust on the findings, which were published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. The paper (which has a very long title that exemplifies academia’s problem in mainstream accessibility) was co-authored by Kelly Iknayan of SFEI and researchers from the Presidio Trust.

“First spotted in the Presidio in 2002, coyotes have since made a comeback in the park and elsewhere in San Francisco,” the local nonprofit continues. “The presence of coyotes may be good for quail because coyotes keep populations of rats, raccoons, and skunks in check; all common urban species that prey on ground-nesting quail chicks make it hard for quail populations to survive and thrive.”

In addition to the Presidio offering the birds a proper habitat and mix of symbiotic wildlife, San Francisco’s Slow Streets Program could also help these quail rebound in the city. The closed-off streets don’t only reduce vehicle mortality among the wildlife populations, which would include reintroduced California quail, but also makes it easier for fauna to travel to and from foraging grounds, breeding dens, territories, and more.

What the research from the Presidio Trust and SFEI highlights is that conservation — especially in this current time marked by the climate crisis — is multipronged. There isn’t a one-solution-fits-all approach to solving today’s most pressing environmental issues; those answers exist in a complex web of practices that can’t simply be reduced to a meme or Facebook status from your conservative aunt.

“It’s going to take the cooperation of multiple agencies that manage open spaces and parks in the City to create the conditions for success across a broad territory,” says Lew Stringer of the Presidio Trust. “Other regional parks and those in San Francisco also support a healthy coyote population, which this paper suggests is beneficial for the success of the project.”

Let’s hope we can add taking the California quail off San Francisco’s locally extinct list of animals to 2023’s faunal bingo card.

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