wildlife in the city

Early San Francisco settlers often wrote about their encounters with wildlife, including their fear of grizzly bears or their taste for California quail. What many settlers had not realized, however, was that many of these animal species were highly adapted to live in the unique habitats of historic San Francisco, which spanned from dry, drifting sand dunes to water-logged wetlands. As San Francisco developed, those highly specialized wildlife were more likely to be extirpated, meaning to become locally extinct. However, San Francisco’s rise also brought new opportunities for other species of wildlife--particularly for those that benefit from the use of ornamental plants or from the introduction of tree plantings. The graph on the right illustrates how a number of species once found in San Francisco have been extirpated, but a great deal are still found within the city today.

The Golden Gate and Bay of San Francisco, 1769. Illustration courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Tule Elk

Cervus canadensis nannodes

The tule elk are endemic to California. In San Francisco, they relied on the peninsula’s native grasses, soft scrub, and woody shrubs for food. They are not only well-adapted to coastal California’s hot, dry climate, but they have also co-evolved with native plant species. For example, tule elk hooves have historically distributed the seeds of native perennial bunch grasses, which, in turn, helps support a rich habitat for the elk. Tule elk were thought to be extinct in the mid-1800s until they were rediscovered near Bakersfield in 1874. While tule elk are no longer found on the San Francisco Peninsula, they are still found nearby in Point Reyes, thanks to successful conservation efforts.

"The soldiers gave chase to some deer but caught none of them; we have seen a great many today, and also found some antlers of some large deer [JK: likely a Tule Elk]. Along the way we saw an antler that was over a vara in length, and the soldiers said that was a small one, as the large ones are over two varas…"

-Father Pedro Font, 1776 in With Anza to California, 1775–1776: The Journal of Pedro Font, O.F.M.

California Quail

Callipepla californica

California quail were a common character in historic San Francisco landscapes. They are found in chaparral, sagebrush, and oak woodlands habitats, spending much of their time on the ground, combing through grass and leaf litter in search of seeds, flowers, grains, berries, acorns, and invertebrates. They tend to live in groups, called coveys, in the fall and winter, sometimes numbering more than 75 individuals. Although they primarily forage in open areas, they stay close to cover in case of predators. The last known quail in San Francisco was last seen in Golden Gate Park in 2018. While California quail are common in California and can be seen all around the greater Bay Area, their survival in San Francisco has been challenged by habitat loss due to urban development and predation by feral cats.

“Quail in Town -- Quail, at this season, for some reason unexplained, leave their usual haunts and come boldly into town. They may be seen now every day running around in the gardens all through the outskirts of the city, seemingly quite as much at home as the chickens or turkeys.”

-Article titled “Quail in town,” 1867 in Daily Alta California

Photo courtesy of Rick Derevan.
Photo courtesy of Constanza Hevia H., San Francisco Chronicle.

Silver Digger Bee

Habropoda miserabilis

Silver digger bees are one of 150 native bee species in San Francisco. These solitary bees are sand dune specialists, and while they are larger than honey bees and fly faster, they are not aggressive. As their name hints, females digger beds have longer back legs for digging burrows in the sand, where they lay their eggs. Females then spend the remaining two and a half months of their lives collecting pollen and nectar in order to feed their larval offspring.

Due to the loss of sand dune habitats, silver digger bees have become a rare sightings in San Francisco. Thanks to habitat restoration efforts, native plants in the Presidio have increased more than tenfold, and as native plant pollinators, the silver digger bees are benefiting from the reintroduction of their sand dune habitat.

Coast Range Newt

Taricha torosa

The coast range newt, a subspecies of the California newt, lives along the California coast in habitats that were once found across San Francisco, such as oak forests, woodlands, and grasslands. They tend to take cover under rocks, logs, and leafy debris, where they can find more moisture. While they live in these drier habitats for most of their adult lives, during the breeding season in December, California newts spend the first aquatic stage of their lives in ponds, lakes, or slow-moving streams, and they return to the same waterbody where they hatched in order to reproduce.

“In a hollow between the hills, where a tiny rillet is bordered with willows and dwarf shrubs of the blue ceanothus (C. thyrsiflorus), we see a flock of blue-birds, and pick up several bellied salamanders ... as they awkwardly sprawl among the wet herbage.”

-WN Lockington, 1878 in The American Naturalist

Photo courtesy of Lauren Stoneburner.

Now it's your turn to find San Francisco's hidden wildlife. Download this activity and see if you can spot these San Francisco birds on your next walk.