Notes from the Field | An Endangered Species for Dinner?

California clapper rail
During the Gold Rush, locals dined on the now-endangered California clapper rail. Photo: Rick Lewis

Thanksgiving is a time for offering thanks, extending generosity, and spending time with family. It is also a time for celebration and feasting. We overflow our plates with buttery mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and of course, roasted turkey, but what was on the menu around the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-1800s? You might be surprised.

In 1848, a carpenter from New Jersey found gold in the American River near Coloma, California – approximately 20 miles northeast of Sacramento. As more people  arrived in San Francisco with hopes of striking it rich, the Bay Area’s population exploded.  During this time, the natural resources of Northern California were quickly depleted – thousands of acres of forests were cut down for development, waterways were contaminated with waste, and fish and other animals were over-harvested.

Among the most significantly impacted animals was the California clapper rail – a medium-sized, grayish brown, flightless bird that lives exclusively in the marshes surrounding San Francisco Bay. Once in the tens of thousands, the California clapper rail’s abundance, ease of capture, and taste that resembled chicken, made it a staple in the diet of miners, and a regular dish on menus throughout the SF Bay region.  By 1990, primarily due to decades of over-hunting and the loss of over 90% of marshland habitat to urban development, salt production, and agriculture, the clapper rail population had plummeted to less than 500 birds.

Once an abundant and popular menu item, the California clapper rail (Rallus longirostris obsoletus) is now listed as an endangered species. Thankfully, due to the collaborative efforts of Save The Bay and our local restoration partners  to protect and restore our remaining wetlands, the rail is slowly making a recovery. With the continued support of thousands of student and public volunteers each year, Save The Bay has been restoring critical habitat, with a goal to re-establish 100,000 acres of wetlands for a healthy and sustainable Bay.

Now that is truly something to be thankful for!

Want to help Save The Bay restore vital habitat for the California clapper rail? Volunteer with us.