Bluebirds are nesting in Golden Gate Park!

Western Bluebird. Creative Commons

The community of serious birders is very excited about the Western Bluebirds that are raising their chicks in Golden Gate Park:  “This afternoon, I went to check up on the Western Bluebirds nesting near the Bison Paddock [in Golden Gate Park].  I’m thrilled to report that I saw two youngsters poking their heads out of the nest hole, and both parents assiduously feeding.”  (1)  According to the San Francisco Breeding Bird Atlas, Western Biuebirds have not been reported breeding in San Francisco since 1936! (2)

However, the birding community is less thrilled about where the Bluebirds chose to build their nest:  in a cavity in a eucalyptus tree created by a woodpecker that had nested there previously.  Adding insult to injury, this particular eucalyptus tree is also adjacent to the off-leash dog play area in Golden Gate Park:  “The nest is in an old woodpecker hole in a big eucalyptus that overhangs the dog run at the back of the paddock.”  (1)

The nesting Bluebirds have violated two sacred tenets of the local birding community, i.e., that birds don’t use non-native plants and trees and that birds are harmed by dogs. 

Do our birds use non-native plants and trees?

We are often impressed by the efforts of native plant advocates to convince us that birds don’t use non-native plants and trees.  There seems to be no end to the inventive arguments they use to convince us our belief in the value of non-native plants is misguided.  We recently had an on-line dialogue with a native plant advocate who responded to our citation of a study that reported equal numbers of species of plants and animals in the understory of eucalyptus forest and oak woodlands by saying that the animals found in the eucalyptus forest were “on their way to the oak woodland.” 

One of the most famous birders in San Francisco led a walk on Mt. Davidson last weekend that was sponsored by the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society.  When this walk was announced to the public, the birder promised to “discuss how birds preferentially use native plant communities over introduced plants.”  Since Mt. Davidson is heavily forested exclusively with non-native trees (eucalyptus, Monterey pine and cypress), we wondered how he was going to successfully make that point.  He didn’t.  These are the birds he reported seeing on Mt. Davidson during that walk and the San Francisco Breeding Bird Atlas tells us where these birds are found:

  • Band-Tailed Pigeon      “…inhabits oak woodlands and coniferous forests”
  • Olive-sided Flycatcher   “…prefers wooded canyons”
  • Western Wood- Pewee    “…found in a variety of woodland and forest habitats”
  • Hairy Woodpecker    “…preferring well-forested habitats…”
  • Swainson’s Thrush   “…prefers well-shaded moist canyons and humid, dense forest”                     

In other words, he set out to prove that the birds on Mt. Davidson prefer native plants, but all the birds he reports having seen are there because of the non-native forest.  He makes no mention of this in his report of what he has seen.  He apparently walks away from this experience with his beliefs unshaken by reality. 

Are birds harmed by dogs?

Native plant advocates claim that dogs are extremely damaging to the environment.  That they harm birds is only one of many accusations.  Here’s a typical quote about dogs from a reader of Jake Sigg’s Nature News:  “Considering the hugely negative environmental impact that dogs cause (holes dug, plants torn up, dog poop everywhere, dogs running into playgrounds, dog foods made from huge numbers of ocean fish) I feel that if dog owners wish to speak on matters related to dogs they should first license their dogs to support the fix-up of the damage caused by dogs in our City parks & streets.”  

When a dog owner walked away from a Park Ranger after a confrontation about his off-leash dog, the ranger shot him in the back with a taser.  Since this incident occurred in a place where off-leash recreation had been permitted as recently as one-month before, many people believed the Ranger’s action was a bit extreme.  Not so in the community of native plant advocates.  Here’s a quote from a regular reader of Jake Sigg’s Nature News:  “All hail the ranger with the Taser!  Finally, a national park employee doing her job…We should build a bronze statue of this ranger.  I hope that one electrical shock makes all dog owners think.”

Yes, indeed.  It does make us think.  It makes us think that there is a great deal of conflict in our public parks and that much of it seems to be on behalf of the animals who can’t speak for themselves.  What would the Western Bluebirds nesting in a eucalyptus tree next to an off-leash dog run tell us?  Might they advise us to “Chill!  We can take care of ourselves.  You need not fight amongst yourselves on our behalf.  We will find a suitable home.  We don’t care if a tree is native or non-native if it provides the shelter we need.  Nesting near the dogs hasn’t harmed us or our chicks.”

We wish the birds could speak for themselves. 


(1) SF Birds email list by subscription only

(2) “San Francisco Breeding Bird Atlas,” San Francisco Field Ornithologists, June 2003.

4 thoughts on “Bluebirds are nesting in Golden Gate Park!”

  1. Why this weirdly polarized and exaggerated report? It will be a good day when people who love dogs expand their love to include other wild animals and the habitats that support them. It is a scientific fact, not a magical sacred tenet that diverse native plants provide better ecosystem services than exotic monocultures. The Bison Paddock has been the focus of a volunteer-driven effort to improve habitat and the Bluebirds are only one of the several successful nesters in the area. if you really love animals, come and volunteer at the Nuttall’s White Crowned Sparrow Project 9-12 AM every 3rd Saturday.
    Webmaster: It is not a “scientific fact” that native plants provide superior habitat. It is an ideology.

    Golden Gate Park is not a monoculture, as we know you know, since you are the head gardener of Golden Gate Park. However, it is vegetated with non-native plants and trees almost exclusively. It was almost entirely barren sand dunes before it was laboriously created by planting non-native trees which provided the windbreak necessary to plant everything else.

    We don’t “love dogs” any more than any other living creature. Do you “love dogs” as much as any other living creature?

  2. If G K-G knew more “people who love dogs,” she would know they also love other animals and their habitats. It is only the native plant fanatics that restrict their love of nature to the narrow range of species they call “native,” and enjoy destroying those species and habitats they don’t love.

    If she is concerned with “scientific facts,” she should also know that “diverse” and “native” aren’t the same thing and don’t always go together. Similarly “exotic” and “monoculture” aren’t synonymous. The Dov Sax paper discussed elsewhere on this website (and linked in the article you are commenting on) shows clearly that the exotic eucalyptus forest in the Berkeley hills is just as diverse as the native oak-bay forest there. That’s a scientific fact.

    And we can enjoy the irony that at RPD’s bison paddock the bluebirds chose to nest 1) in a eucalyptus tree, and 2) right near the dog play area. I call it ironic because RPD plans to 1) destroy thousands of eucalyptus trees just because they’re non-native, and 2) eliminate some and restrict other dog play areas in places where they want to do more native plant gardening.

  3. There’s also evidence that a Bewick’s wren is (or has been) nesting in Glen Canyon, in a cavity hidden by non-native ivy.

    Since most song-birds depend on trees, and almost all San Francisco’s trees are non-native, the city would be immensely poorer in bird life without the eucalyptus and Monterey Cypress and Monterey pine.

    The only way people can believe that native plants provide better habitat than the naturalized species is to avoid looking.

    I also wonder why monocultures are a problem when we’re talking about century-old eucalyptus forests (which are not in fact monocultures) but not when we’re talking about Muir Woods – which has perhaps even fewer species, since redwoods do not provide flowers and nectar to insects and birds.

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