Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article January 2006.
The Flight of Feathers:
Researching Napa Birds
By Lauren Coodley
In studying the history of Napa, I came across a bit of tantalizing information: banker and Boy Scout leader Elmer Bickford wrote a letter to the editor in the l920’s, listing the birds that the Scouts had sighted on one weekend. I wasn’t able to include the list in my book, but it haunted me. Which birds had survived?
When I saw a copy of a new book, “Breeding Birds of Napa County,” an atlas detailing the natural history of the 145 known and 11 possible species that breed in the area, I realized that I could begin to answer that question. I learned that the Napa-Solano Audubon Society (NSAS) had organized 70 volunteers, most of whom surveyed separate 5-kilometer plots between 1989 and 1993. The atlas includes two foldout maps, drawings of each bird, distribution maps, habitat descriptions, and population estimates. Leah Messinger writes, “In the spirit of the first breeding bird atlas, which was developed in Great Britain and Ireland in 1966, this book provides a baseline for future comparative population studies. NSAS expects this atlas will be a useful environmental record as the traditionally mixed-crop agricultural county becomes more and more a monoculture of wine grapes. Already, since the book’s completion, amateur ornithologists have noticed a decline in the numbers of loggerhead shrikes and burrowing owls” (“Ear to the Ground,” January-March 2004).
Elmer Bickford was one of the leading citizens of l9th century Napa, and an outstanding amateur photographer; I have included some of his views of Napa here. Along with his Scouts, he found the following birds: Western Robin, Green-backed Goldfinch, English Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, House Finch, Plain Titmouse, Audubon Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, Belted Kingfisher, Valley Quail, Red-shafted Flicker, California Towhee, California Purple Finch, White-crowned Sparrow, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Townsend Solitaire, Rufous Hummingbird, Lute-scent Warbler, Hermit-thrush, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Western Meadow Lark, Rough-winged Swallow, Brewer Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Violet-green Swallow, Slender-build Nuthatch, Nuttal Woodpecker, Spotted Towhee, Downy-willow, Woodpecker, Bullock Oriole, Willow Goldfinch, Nicasio (Bewick) Wren, Western, Warbling Vireo, Western Flycatcher, Killdeer, Black Phoebe, Red-winged Blackbird, Tree Swallow, California Jay, Ring-necked Pheasant, Russet-backed Thrush, Cliff, Swallow, Wren Tit, Western Tanager, Western Gnatcatcher, Barn Swallo, Great Blue Heron, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Long-tailed Chat, Western Wood Pewee, Pileolated Warbler, Pacific Yellow Throat, Lawrence Goldfinch, California Creeper, Arkansas Kingbird, White-tailed Kite, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Allen Hummingbird, Shrike, Yellow Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Cassin Vireo, Lark Sparrow, Western Bluebird, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Crow, Turkey Vulture, House Wren, Mallard Duck, Little Green Heron, Mourning Dove and Wood Duck.
On the supplementary trip on Sears Point Road, they found an additional 17 species: Horned Lark, Sparrow Hawk, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Hudsonian Curlew, Tule Wren, Bonaparte Gull, Western Gull, Herring Gull, Salt Marsh, Yellowthroat Coot, Savannah (Bryant’s) Sparrow, American Egret, Spoonbill Duck, Grebe, Semi-palmated Plover, Mocking-Bird, Lazuli Bunting, Black-crowned Night Heron.
Eighty or so years later, reporters for the Register wrote: “Where tourists now prowl for wines and high priced mustards, there were once herds of tule elk browsing, California condor soaring, and even some grizzly bears roaming…what decimated the population of elk, condors, and bear was the loss of habitat and hunting spurred by the influx of settlers during the l9th century.” (“Millennium Issue,” January 2000).
A thousand years ago, Napa was home to an abundance of wildlife that we now associate with places like Alaska. The article notes that Napa settlers’ early records include mention of the California condor, according to Bill Grummer, Ranger at Bothe State Park. With a wingspan of nearly ten feet; condors could soar on thermal updrafts for hours and reach l500 feet. Alterations to the riparian habitat along the Napa River and to the wetlands that once stretched all the way to Imola Avenue also reduced the prevalence of many bird species in the county. The California Clapper Rail, now listed as endangered and often impossible to find, was once so numerous that residents ate it, said Fred Botti, biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game.
When we read about the loss of open space, when we see the landscape around us changing abruptly, it’s easy to forget the cost we pay in the loss of birds. Napa College student Justine Fournier, who has studied the destruction of the town of Monticello, is keenly aware of the terrible loss of species. She single-handedly cross referenced Bickford’s list with the careful lists created by “Breeding Birds of Napa” authors Murray Berner, Bill Grummer, Robin Leong and Mike Rippey. Here are the birds that Elmer Bickford and his Scouts saw, which have survived today: House Finch, Cedar Waxwing, Belted Kingfisher, California Towhee, Hermit Thrush, Western Meadow Lark, Brewer Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Violet-green Swallow, Nuttal Woodpecker, Spotted Towhee, Bullock Oriole, Wren, Killdeer, Black Phoebe, Red-winged Blackbird, Tree Swallow, Ring-necked Pheasant, Cliff Swallow, Purple Finch, Warbling Vireo, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Downy Woodpecker, Green Heron, Western Tanager, Barn Swallow, Great Blue Heron, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood Pewee, Lawrence Goldfinch, White-tailed Kite, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Allen Hummingbird, Yellow Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Cassin Vireo, Lark Sparrow, Western Bluebird, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Crow, Turkey Vulture, House Wren, Mourning Dove, Wood Duck and Mallard Duck.
Of the birds found on Sears Point Rd., there remain these: Homed Hawk, Western Gull, Savannah (Bryant’s) Sparrow, Grebe, Mocking Bird, Lazuli Bunting, Black-crowned Night Heron.
What happened to the others? In l930, there were only 6,437 people living here; by l950, we were home to l3,000. In the Forties, new houses were built on the streets called Ash, Sycamore, and Spruce, where perhaps those trees once stood in open meadows. In the Fifties and Sixties, new houses were built north of Lincoln, in what had been farms, and on the north side of Trancas, in an area named Bel Aire, and then in Browns’ Valley, were acres of prune orchards and dairy cows. By l970, we had 37,000 people.
The population voted in a 1973 referendum to maintain the size of the city and to keep downtown as the center of the shopping district. Those citizens, Republicans and Democrats, women and men, must have cherished the town they knew, bordered by Trancas on the north end and the open wetlands around the Maxwell Bridge, wetlands that housed many of the bird species we can no longer find. Few strangers ever visited and few locals ever left, a kind of Brigadoon, where the narrow roads in and out of town were rarely traveled by anyone. Perhaps in those days a quarter century ago, the Western Robin, the White Crowned Sapsucker, and the Lute-scent Warbler lingered in our fields, not yet claimed by developers. Certainly the wetlands were home, as they had been for thousands of years, to the Tule Wren, the Western Sandpiper, the Spoonbill Duck, and the Sparrow Hawk. Was it worth losing them for another McDonald’s or an Office Depot that would displace customers from locally owned businesses downtown?
How do we count the price of “progress?” How do we use the traces from the past to help us plan for the future? The letter from a Boy Scout leader, the dedication of the Audubon Society members, and the careful work of a college student have combined to give us some tools. For sharing with me the letter and photographs from his grandfather, I would like to thank Robert Northrop; for her impassioned research, Justine Fournier. Order forms for “Breeding Birds of Napa” are available through napasolanoaudubon.org.
For opportunities to see some of these birds in the wild, including field trips along Huichica Creek (Napa County) and Highway 113 (Solano County), contact field trip chair David Takeuchi at (707) 643-5544. Birds that are endangered right now by habitat destruction include the Olive-sided Flycatcher, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and the Yellow Warbler. Perhaps we can yet save a few more species from the bulldozer and the parking lot, and let us honor those who’ve spent their time on earth advocating for those lovely flying feathers, the birds that still live with us.