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On the Hunt for San Francisco's Official Bird

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.

Jimmy Tobias reports on why San Francisco, a city known for its innovative thinking and environmental leadership, has been unable to save its official bird.

Tobias' Pacific Standard story is currently available on newsstands and to subscribers and will be posted online on Tuesday, March 8. Until then, an excerpt:

The reasons for the quail's decline are controversial. Everyone seems to have a different explanation. For Hopkins, however, it's simple. Habitat degradation, including brush removal, is one of the main threats driving the decline. The other is predation by crows, raccoons, cats, and more. In the summer of 2000, Hopkins, then the president of the Audubon Society's local chapter and leader of the newly minted Save the Quail campaign, took his concerns to city hall. The quail population had dipped below 40, and he wanted officials to name the species San Francisco's city bird. He hoped that high-profile recognition would ensure its survival.

The plan worked, at least initially. A city supervisor sponsored a resolution naming the quail the official city bird and pledged support to Hopkins' campaign. As the vote on the resolution drew near, however, cat advocates, including the powerful San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, balked.

Cats are known to prey heavily on birds, especially ground-dwellers, and conservationists saw them as a key player in the quail's decline. The SPCA and its allies believed Hopkins' campaign was a cover for killing cats.

At a series of meetings on the resolution, cat defenders arrived in force. And though the resolution eventually passed and the quail was named the city bird, Hopkins says his high-profile strategy was a big mistake. He says it inflamed his opponents, wasted time, and turned the quail into a controversial issue.


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