San Francisco Department of the Environment

San Francisco: America’s Urban Birding Paradise

June is the month that Red Masked Parakeets (aka The Parrots of Telegraph Hill) start laying eggs in their nests.  These bright green and red parrots are now well established in San Francisco, with more than 200 of them visible in much of the City (and occasionally even straying to the East Bay). These exotic birds are threatened in their native Ecuador and Peru, but small numbers do well in isolated parts of California and Florida, where handfuls of birds captured for the pet trade escaped and multiplied.

Even though these birds are colorful and raucous, they are often ignored by residents and tourists alike.  I’m amazed when I walk by Lombard and Leavenworth and see hundreds of tourists totally oblivious to the parakeets’ loud calls from the trees right above the crooked street.

Red masked parakeets nest in fan palms, fan palms being another species that’s an exotic in San Francisco.  But native birds also nest in fan palms.  One of the most beautiful of these is the Hooded Oriole, which I consider to be even more exotic looking than the parakeets. These bright orange and black birds are now raising young, and nest almost exclusively in fan palms.  They are actually quite common in the Presidio, and there’s nothing like seeing this bright orange and black bird flash in and out of the palm trees to give a tropical feel to San Francisco (even in the fog).

Birds take advantage of opportunities to nest and rest, and San Francisco is actually one of the best places in the country to look for different species of birds.  If you include the waters around San Francisco, more than 450 species of birds can be found here at one time or another.  Almost 400 have been seen in the City itself. That’s almost half the number of species that can be seen in the entire continental United States – all those in 47 square miles plus the bay and ocean around the City.

Every month is different, with birds leaving and arriving in every season.  San Francisco is in the middle of one of the three great bird migration paths in North America – the Pacific Flyway.  Combine that with a mild climate, and it’s no wonder that lots of birds pass through and stop here.

This month many of our native birds (some of those that hang around all year, and some that are here only for the summer) are raising their young, and you can find them in the most unlikely of places. Once a summer around this time, I take the ferry to Alcatraz with hundreds of tourists, get off the boat and walk to the extreme west side of the island (which takes less than 10 minutes) to admire nesting seabirds.  Hundreds of Brandt’s Cormorants with bright blue throats nest on the west side of the island just 10 or 20 feet from the paved path.  Pigeon Guillemots, a black and white seabird with shocking red feet also nest here, along with Western Gulls by the hundreds, Snowy Egrets with yellow feet and amazing hairdos, and Black Crowned Night Herons with white plumes extending from the back of their heads. Last summer I spent more than three hours admiring these amazing birds and only saw one other person during that entire time, although there were hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists over the hill a few yards away.