“For a while, he didn’t want to get out. He was going, ‘What’s up?’ Then he popped out and flew into the tree. In a moment, he was lost to us. We just hope he can keep up with them, remember his old skills.”
It turns out that Dr. Jenkins also knows my falcon, the one who dive-bombed the pigeon next to my bedroom.
“That falcon died right here. She was one of the ones that were released by the Peregrine Fund. Falcons were just about gone, finished. They were down to very few. Then in the mid-’70s, falconers all over the United States got together. They contributed their birds to form this Peregrine Fund to breed falcons and release them back into the wild. They really brought them out of extinction. Now they’re off the endangered-species list. Your bird was bred in Santa Barbara, she was released down here in Southern California someplace, and she nested [under] the Coronado Bay Bridge for years — with a number of different males, by the way. She chose the nesting spot.”
He says the process of painting the bridge used to stop for her.
“In years past, you would see the whole bridge had been painted, but one section would still be old paint. That’s because she was nesting. They’d skip that part, so they wouldn’t disturb her.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, the mama falcon never was given a name.
Finally, she was fished out of the harbor, exhausted, old, ill.
“This was five, six years ago. Somebody who lives on the harbor saw her hit the water. They went out, scooped her up, and called animal control. Animal control rushed her in here, but we couldn’t keep her alive. She’d lost a lot of weight. We did a postmortem on her, and she had some pneumonia, which was probably because she was debilitated. Out laying eggs and raising babies is very hard on those guys, and it probably took more than she had left in her. Falcons can live well into their 30s. My suspicion is she was released in the late-’70s, early-’80s. And she lived into the mid-2000s. So she probably made it to around 30 years old.”
What would she have been hunting over the harbor?
“Mostly pigeons. Rock doves. All our street pigeons come from racing pigeons. They’re not native to here. Falcons are natives. Back in the day, they would have eaten mourning doves, or other birds.”
He says some of her babies survived.
“I’m sure they’re still here. I was downtown, waiting for my daughter. She’s a little ballerina, and she was performing in The Nutcracker last year at the Civic Theatre. I was waiting for her to get out after the performance. Just before the sun went down, there was a pair of falcons chasing pigeons between the buildings. Your lady’s kids, for sure. How cool is that?”
∗ ∗ ∗
“We see coyotes, on and off,” says Leigha Robertson, who lives in Olivenhain and has lost four cats to, she suspects, coyotes. “In the summertime, ’specially, we really, really fear them. Driving home around dusk, you hear them: a yip-yelpy bark. ‘Ow ow ow ow ow!’ A lot of people around here don’t even keep cats anymore. So, instead, the coyotes are going for their small dogs.
“And rabbits. We had, like, 12 rabbits used to live out here. This year, we have maybe one or two. We think the coyotes came in and cleaned them out. The worst thing I ever heard was when one got a bunny. Bunnies cry really loud.”
∗ ∗ ∗
The badger that Scott Tremor hands me is as stiff as a board.
“How rare are these?” I ask.
“How rare? If I heard there was one found out there, anywhere, I’d drop this interview and be gone. Bye-bye! They’re that important. I prepared this one [for preservation] in 1994. It came from the Warner Springs area. Santa Ysabel. Road kill. These are very, very rare. This is the effect of roads, and urbanization. Dogs harass them, but road kill is most common. Because badgers have no fear of anything. They’ll stand in front of a tractor and challenge it.”
Tremor is in charge of mammals at the San Diego Natural History Museum. The museum oversees — and adds to — a collection of 23,000 mammals and 54,000 birds, all dead, disemboweled, dried specimens collected since the 1870s.
Tremor pulls out a drawerful of what look like Cuban cigars, or elongated corn dogs.
They’re long-tailed weasels. “See the tag? This one was collected by Frank Stevens in 1896. These are native to this area. Recently, the population has exploded. It could be because of the rains. The vegetation comes back, and so do California ground squirrels and pocket gophers. That’s the weasels’ prey diet.”
Who knew? And who cares? This fauna morgue has been locked up for generations in a building known more as a backdrop for balloon-twisting clowns, sax-players, and soothsayers on the Prado. What’s the point of painstakingly collecting scrappy little animals most of us will never see in a San Diego lifetime?
But maybe these guys who tag the county’s natural past are best positioned to predict its future. Because Tremor and his colleagues Phil Unitt (curator of the museum’s department of birds and mammals), Jon Rebman (the plant guy), and Brad Hollingsworth (lizards and snakes) are often the first to see problems coming down nature’s turnpike.
They’re also — believe it or not — eco-revolutionaries. The four amigos, a new generation of proactive scientists at the museum. Together, they’ve revived the lost art of collecting mammals, plants, snakes, other reptiles, and birds after a 60-year gap when nobody did nothin’. They also publish atlases of San Diego County for plants, mammals, snakes, and lizards. And, boy, have they put life back into this venerable institution.
Result? They keep discovering things. Plants and creatures — like, unnamed San Diego life-forms, or unnoticed relatives to known ones, all totally new to science — on an almost daily basis.