If you were in attendance at this year’s Coastal Cleanup Day, you may have been able to spot these elusive endangered species along the Richmond Shoreline: the Ridgway’s Rails (Rallus obsoletus). Formerly known as California Clapper Rails, these birds were renamed after a close examination of their DNA. The new name pays homage to the late ornithologist, Robert Ridgway.
Robert Ridgway held a position as Curator of Birds at The Smithsonian Institute and had a lifelong passion for birds until his death in 1929. During his lifetime, he described an unmatched amount of North American bird species, including none other than, the Ridgway’s Rails.
The Ridgway’s Rails live in harmony in salt marshes and brackish waters, making the San Francisco Bay the perfect habitat. The presence of the Ridgway’s Rails actually confirms the health of salt marshes. Here, the birds have enough food and sufficient cover for nesting season, which occurs from mid-March into July, while nesting peaks occur in late April to early May and late June to early July. These birds have access to crustaceans, insects, frogs, worms, and other small mammals that reside in or near the estuary.
The Ridgway’s Rails have suffered population loss due to hunters from the time of the Gold Rush up until the passage of the Weeks-Mclean Law in 1913. Subsequently, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in order to ensure that commercial market hunting and the illegal shipment of migratory birds across state lines would subside. However, Ridgway’s Rails still don’t have it easy due to recent urban developments, agricultural expansions, and salt production. These factors have led to the loss of tidal marsh habitat in the San Francisco Bay by 84% or more.
Many institutions have displayed an effort to ensure that these creatures will remain in the San Francisco Bay. For instance, in 1984, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) developed a recovery plan that outlines required actions to protect the Ridgway’s Rails. Point Blue Conservation Science has enlisted biologists to monitor the Rails while also working with partners to figure out the best location to restore tidal marsh habitats using long-term data sets. The Berkeley Global Campus, and headquarters of The Watershed Project, is home to some Ridgway’s Rails.
Next time you are down by the San Francisco Bay; keep an eye out for these creatures that have cinnamon-colored breasts and long, down-curved orange beaks. Don’t be alarmed when they go into hiding as these birds are known to be bashful.