SAN FRANCISCO — Amid the lupine, lilacs and California live oak of Golden Gate Park, a glorious swath of green in this densely populated city, the official state bird is vanishing.
The California quail, a slightly comic bird with a plump profile and an elegant topknot, once roamed the park's 1,013 acres. More than 1,500 quail lived here at the turn of the century. Populous enough to be pests, they were once the focus of an eradication program by park gardeners fed up with the birds' appetite for tender seedlings.
Today, however, just 12 California quail remain. The covey is making its last stand among the California native plants in the Strybing Arboretum, in an area of loose underbrush and dense foliage that best protects the birds from predators.
"It's a serious situation," said Alan Hopkins, past president of the Golden Gate chapter of the National Audubon Society. He helps direct the society's annual Christmas bird count, which has tracked the quail's rapid decline.
"We're talking about a family of birds that has been here since Portola," Hopkins said, referring to Gaspar de Portola, the first Spaniard to reach the San Francisco Bay Area in 1769. "And now we're about to lose them."
Reasons given for the decline vary. Scrub jays, squirrels and rats feed upon the young, which are raised in nests on the ground and are thus vulnerable to predators. Brush clearance in the park, meant to decrease encampments of homeless people, has cut down quail habitat. Intensified planting in the arboretum has also eaten into the birds' territory.
And then there's the question of the feral cats. Cat lovers who feed and nurture the cats living in the park deny it, but bird watchers insist that the felines have contributed to the quail's decline.
Whatever the cause, the result is clear and park workers have noticed it.
Terry Seefeld tends the California native plant garden at the arboretum. In his three years on the job, he has seen the number of birds drop dramatically.
"Two years ago, there were four families with about 40 chicks. Within one week, they were all gone," he said. "Last year, there were hardly any at all."
In a generous gesture for a gardener who competes with the hungry quail for the plants he tends, Seefeld makes "quail trails" in areas of thick vegetation, small paths so the birds can move throughout the gardens. Regulars to the park want to help, too.
"It's unfortunate, but you don't see a lot of information about what's best for the birds and animals here," said Tracy Skates, who lives a block away. Her regular walk takes her past one of the quail's favorite haunts.
"Should you feed them, not feed them? Who knows?" she said. "We could use some signs--in five different languages."
Although "Do Not Feed" warnings aren't part of the plan, signs describing the quail and their habitat are, said Dan McKenna, assistant superintendent of parks for the city.
Visitors could learn that chaparral birds such as the quail make up for their inconspicuous plumage, a liability during mating season, with a repertoire of 14 different calls. Quail pairs may travel five miles to find a secure nest site, where the female lays from 12 to 16 spotted eggs.
Although quail need a leafy canopy to protect them from such enemies as hawks and jays, they also require loose underbrush through which they can move as they feed on seeds, plants and insects. Such information could help visitors appreciate the quail's brushy habitat, which can look unkempt next to the lush precision of a formal garden.
"The arboretum exists to educate the public about plants and about environmental issues as well," said McKenna, who lived next door to the park and remembers watching the quail as a child.
"Fauna like the California quail are part of the environment we want to protect," he said. "They're among the issues we're hoping to educate people about, such as the need for habitat restoration throughout the world."
In Golden Gate Park, workers and volunteers are planting saltbush, a silvery shrub that is a favorite cover and food source of the quail. Thickets of blackberries, invasive plants if left unchecked, have been allowed moderate growth. So far, about 1,000 square feet of a proposed 5-acre habitat has been planted with the quail in mind.
"We're trying to balance aesthetics with the need for habitat, particularly since this has become the last stronghold for the quail in the park," McKenna said.
So there is some good news for the quail, which last year landed on the Audubon Society's "watch list," which means its population is in decline statewide. But with just a dozen birds remaining in the park, their future here is far from secure.
"Although the quail are struggling in this city, they are not going to go extinct any time soon," Alan Hopkins said. "But then look at the passenger pigeon. It was once the most abundant bird in America, and now it's completely gone."