Wildlife in San Francisco: Part I – Birds

  • Posted by Mikail Price
  • On November 20, 2015
  • bird, bird control, birds, integrated pest management, IPM, san francisco, SF, wildlife

Feral Pigeons in San Francisco

By Howard Williams

With over 800,000 people crowded onto the 47 square mile tip of a peninsula, San Francisco doesn’t have much room for wildlife. But animals not only live here, many species have adapted quite well to the urban jungle.

Naturally, we in the pest control profession are quite familiar with the mosquitoes, roaches, rodents, pigeons and other parasites found in any major city. But in the course of our work, we also get to see the wide variety of wildlife that also call our City home.

Birds are the most obvious. So much so that people often overlook them – or underlook them since they are usually flying above us. From the almost microscopic yet acrobatic hummingbird to the majestically soaring red tail hawk, San Francisco is home to about 200 resident and migratory bird species (1). Although most are natives, quite a few are immigrants, helped by the variety of trees and plants that also originate in other places. As a walk in the Golden Gate Park’s Botanical Gardens shows, many different plants from anywhere can grow in San Francisco’s climate.

Most famous of the avian newcomers are the wild parrots that established themselves on Telegraph Hill in the 1980s and have since spread over the eastern half of the City. At least two flocks now fly in San Francisco: the original pandemonium on and near Telegraph Hill and a prattle around Dolores Park (2). (In addition to their other meanings, the words “pandemonium” and prattle” also refer to a flock of parrots.) (3) These birds inspired The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, first a book by Mark Bittner and then a 2005 documentary movie.

A more numerous but less loved newcomer is the common starling. From a few dozen imported from England to New York City’s Central Park in 1890, starlings advanced west faster than the American pioneers, reaching the Pacific Coast just over 50 years later in the 1940s(4). Perhaps as many as 200 million starlings now fly in all 50 states as well as southern Canada and northern Mexico (5). And they are pests. Their scientific name Sturnus vulgaris offers just a hint as to their infamous obnoxiousness. Just about anything annoying that can be done, they do it. Watch a backyard full of different songbirds eating and socializing amiably and see a starling appear. And then another. Another … and in minutes they have ousted the previous occupants. Multiply that incident many times over and you have an idea of how they have displaced native birds here in the USA and elsewhere. And even where they’re native, they cause problems. In 1949, starlings perched on the minute hand of London’s famed Big Ben clock, slowing the landmark timepiece (6). The guano produced by a mass murmuration of starlings can corrode building structures and sometimes contains the Histoplasma capsulatum fungus which can cause histoplasmosis, a potentially fatal lung disease (7). Like a plague of feathered locusts, a chattering of starlings can devastate an orchard, grainfield or vineyard in a matter of hours. They also raid animal feed. This invasive bird eats the seeds of invasive plants and then spreads them in their guano. Each year, in the USA and all over the world they cause billions of dollars in agricultural losses (8). The worst thing they do is disrupt and endanger air travel, either by causing a flight diversion or worse, by being sucked into aircraft engines and bringing down the plane. In 1960, sixty-two people were killed in Massachusetts when a plane flew into a cloud of starlings and 34 persons died in 1996 when the birds downed a plane in the Netherlands (9). (In addition to their other meanings, the words “chattering” and “cloud” also refer to a flock of starlings as does “murmuration.”) (10)

And yet who can deny the magnificent choreography of a massive cloud of starlings in flight? If you’ve never seen it, imagine a vast swath of the sky darkened by hundreds or even thousands of these chattering fowls. Look to your left and see a wide column of them ascending heavenward to join a mass flying toward the right to merge into a column of equal size which is descending toward Earth only to wheel about and turn upward to continue their aerial dance. One youtube video shows a starling murmuration above San Francisco shaped like a flowing oval blob with part of it breaking away to start its own formation only to rejoin the original mass (11). Seeing such sights makes one forget the great damage they do.

Even as newcomers such as starlings and parrots have thrived, the once common California quail, official bird of the state and the City, has dwindled to near extinction in San Francisco. (The phoenix is also an official bird of San Francisco. Phoenixes are mythical birds so there are probably none in the City. Yet if there are just a few they outnumber quail in San Francisco.) Up until the end of the last millennium, their distinctive three-note call (sometimes transliterated as “chi-ca-go!”) sounded throughout the City. Now they are almost never heard or seen. Feral cats and other predators have nearly wiped them out from the City. Despite efforts to save them here, California quail in San Francisco numbered only about 12 individuals in 2012 (12). In San Francisco, quail are more likely to be found indoors … on an entree plate inside a swank restaurant. Fortunately, the state bird remains common in most of California as well as other western regions of the US, Mexico and Canada.

Hummingbirds are found all over San Francisco and all over the Americas. And only in the Americas. Throughout the twin continents, they are prominent in the faith and folklore of many native tribes. Some tribes credit them for helping end droughts (13). According to Birds of America, birds of Trochilidae (the hummingbird family) are the most unique. “No other group of birds is so brilliant in plumage or so different in mode of flight and manner of feeding.” (14) Hummingbirds are the smallest birds and the only ones that can fly backwards. Although they are uniquely American, they have adapted well to eucalyptus and other introduced trees and plants.

The California condor was nearly wiped out in the last century and eagles almost never visit San Francisco skies. As a result, hawks and falcons are San Francisco’s biggest birds. One of the most famous is the peregrine falcon. Soaring almost gently on thermal updrafts, spotting a pigeon and then plunging down at a speed of over 200 mph, the peregrine falcon is the fastest living thing on or above Earth (15). The American peregrine falcon was almost wiped out by the insecticide DDT in the 1950s and 1960s but in a remarkable conservation success story, have since recovered to almost their historical levels. DDT in the diet of falcons and other birds damaged their eggs enough to prevent births. After the US banned DDT in 1972, pest exterminators began to use Integrated Pest Management methods (where chemical pesticide use is a last resort). As a result, the populations of peregrine falcons and numerous other beneficial animals recovered (16). A good place to see hawks and falcons is Hawk Hill in southern Marin just north of the Golden Gate Bridge (17). And there are several places inside the City as well. Grand View Park, Bernal Hill, Diamond Heights, Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson and other hills with open views offer opportunities to see hawks and falcons which are usually well rewarded on warm, clear days. Why warm and clear? Because hawks and falcons often soar on thermal updrafts while looking for prey (18). But hawks and falcons fly all over San Francisco and are even seen soaring above the Financial District’s highest buildings.

Birds can control pests or be pests; sometimes the same species may be both. For all the damage they do to farms, starlings also eat many insects that prey on agricultural crops. A seagull may steal your sandwich in the park as one tried to do to a MAC crew member a few weeks ago. But they also keep the beach clean and in San Francisco, maintaining a healthy Ocean Beach is difficult (19). If someone drops a sandwich in the sand and just leaves it there, chances are it’ll be a seagull that cleans it up. And if a rat tries to get it first, the gull might be waiting for it. Gulls also clean up worse refuse such as dead animals. In 1848 in Utah, California sea gulls were credited with devouring much of a cricket plague that was threatening the Mormon settlement’s wheat crop. For this, the California sea gull became the state bird of Utah (20).

Every Pestec technician’s job involves encountering some of Nature’s less appealing sights, sounds and smells. Fortunately, our work also offers us chances to enjoy her everyday beauty. The birds of San Francisco’s parks and skies show us such beauty so often.

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(1) San Francisco Preservation Society website, “Birds Commonly Seen in San Francisco” page: www.sfpsociety.org/SFbirds.html `(2) “Feral Parrot Populations in San Francisco” City College of San Francisco (http://fog.ccsf.cc.ca.us/~jmorlan/sfparrots.htm) “The Parrot Pages” by Mark Bittner (http://www.markbittner.net/parrot_pages/wildparrots.html)

(3) A Compendium of Collective Nouns: From an Armory of Aardvarks to a Zeal of Zebras by Mark Faulkner, Eduardo Lima Filho, Harriet Logan and Miraphora Mina, San Francisco, California, 2013, p. 146

(4) “Common starling” Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_starling)

(5) “Starlings Bar Broadcast Of the Big Ben Chimes” New York Times (from United Press International), August 13, 1949, p. 3

(6) National Institutes of Health website (https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001082.htm) Chipper Woods Bird Observatory website (http://www.wbu.com/chipperwoods/photos/estarling.htm)

(7) Histoplasmosis page on Wikipedia : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histoplasmosis

(8) “Pesky starlings endanger planes, damage crops” by Mike Stark, Associated Press, September 20, 2009 (www.sfgate.com/news/article/Pesky-starlings-endanger-planes-damage-crops-3217891.php)

(9) Ibid.

(10)  A Compendium of Collective Nouns, p. 188

(11) Search under “youtube murmuration starling downtown san francisco”

(12) “Out and about with California quail” by Courtney Quirin, Bay Nature August 17, 2012

(13) World of Hummingbirds website : worldofhummingbirds.com/history.php

(14) Birds of America 1936, Edited by T. Gilbert Pearson, John Burroughs and 6 others, Garden City, N. Y.,  p. 180

(15) US Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program website, “All about the Peregrine Falcon” page, web.archive.org/web/20080416195055/http://www.fws.gov/endangered/recovery/peregrine

(16) Ibid.

(17) “Hawk Hill: People, birds flock for views” by Gail Todd, October 10, 2012,  www.sfgate.com/outdoors/urbanoutings/article/Hawk-Hill-People-birds-flock-for-views-3936928.php%20%20%20article%20by%20Gail%20Todd%20October%2010,%202012

(18) www.aerospaceweb.org/question/nature/q0253.shtml

(19) San Francisco Chronicle, November 15, 2015, “Insight: Here comes the law,” p. E3

(20) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_of_the_gulls



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