Urban Naturalist: The $5.5 Billion Bird | A Considerable Town | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Urban Naturalist: The $5.5 Billion Bird 

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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

We relate to birds in odd ways — by caging them, eating them, scaring them, shooting them, trapping them, wearing them, killing them with our cats, cutting down their homes — but we all love birds in general, and the more we learn about them, the more we seem to value them and their mystery. As a nation, we were galvanized to save the bald eagle (Haliaetus leucocephalus) when we learned how the very symbol of the United States had been poisoned and hunted to the brink of extinction by its own citizens.

But will the California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) engender the same support?

I didn’t think so a few weeks ago as I settled into a wooden bench in Courtroom 6 of the U.S. District Court downtown on a Monday afternoon. I got there early to get through security and to avoid the crowds, but there were no crowds. I alone sat in the public seating on the right side of the room, behind the two attorneys from the not-for-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) representing the gnatcatcher. On the other side of the courtroom sat lawyers and interested parties representing the Southern California Builders’ and Industry Association, Rancho Mission Viejo LLC, Irvine Ranch Water District, Foothill Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency, and the Department of Justice representing the Department of the Interior and its Fish and Wildlife Service. The gnatcatcher’s side of the courtroom was open space, and the developers’ side was overcrowded with white people in suits.

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The gnatcatcher’s proponents are suing the U.S. government to force it to follow its own regulations restricting the development of 500,000 acres of undeveloped coastal land that has been designated “critical habitat” for the recovery of the species. The builders and developers who hope to build 14,000 homes on 24,000 acres and a north-south toll road directly through the center of the 500,000 acres — which stretch from Palos Verdes to Baja — claimed that the Fish and Wildlife Service process was illegal and failed to consider the economic impact of lost jobs, property values and land revenues estimated at $5.5 billion. One lawyer after another made broad non-scientific statements about the population and the needs of the gnatcatcher. Each claim was refuted by the NRDC with scientific facts. As the only one on the gnatcatcher’s side of the courtroom, I found myself caught up in the contest, shaking my head or looking shocked, hoping the judge would see me and be swayed by my reaction. I wanted to be the voice of the gnatcatcher and equalize the proceedings.

I first met Polioptila californica in 1996 near a rock quarry in Palos Verdes. I had just discovered bird watching, and the California gnatcatcher topped the list of birds I most desired to see; it was the only species that was found nowhere else in California, the U.S. or the world. That first day I was lucky. Soon after I arrived I could hear a mewing like a kitten and saw some movement inside the eye-level scrub. I got my binoculars on the male, a 4.5-inch dark gray-brown bird with a long tail and a dark cap, flitting from branch to branch and cocking his tail. Upon closer inspection I noticed a pinkish wash under the tail and a black cap forming on the top of the head. It was the beginning of breeding season. That explained the cap. The female was nearby as she always is. This species almost always travels in pairs. I was careful not to disturb or harass them. They were foraging through the scrub for insects — not just gnats — and I thought how funny that name is. I sat down and watched for a while, getting good looks at the white ends of the tail feathers on the long tail. I was captivated.

Since then I have been back to that spot more times in response to Japanese and Taiwan and U.K. birders imploring, “Do you know where I can see the gnatcatcher?” It is known worldwide as the gnatcatcher. No first name. Originally thought to be a subspecies of a gnatcatcher with a wider range, it was first recognized as a distinct species in the late 1980s by biologist Jon Atwood when he was at UCLA. The rest of the world recognized it in 1989. In 1993 there were only an estimated 1,200 pairs left, and after petitions from scientific organizations, the bird was officially listed as a threatened species in the Endangered Species Act, giving it protection by the United States of America.

Few people in Southern California have actually seen the California gnatcatcher. It’s not widespread like crows or jays or even as adaptable as hummingbirds. It can only live in coastal sage scrub, which is not just one species of plant but a group of species unique to Southern California. Pulitzer Prize–winning biologist Edward O. Wilson lists this flora as one of the eight most critically endangered habitats in the world, comparable to ecological disasters like the Philippines, southeast Brazil and Madagascar. It’s the only habitat in North America bad enough to land on his list. And the gnatcatcher is not the only species dependent upon coastal sage scrub for existence. Three-spined armored stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus), the endangered Stephens kangaroo rat (Dipodomys stephensi), Quino checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha quino), banded gecko (Coleonyx variegatus) and orange-throated whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus hyperythrus) can’t survive outside it. Coastal sage scrub isn’t easy to get to unless you make an appointment with Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary in Trabuco Canyon in Orange County, or take back roads that are usually private and fenced. You have to make an effort.

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