Research: Central Valley 2015

The whole country is being settled up, since the L.A. Aqueduct has brought water within reach; and even the stony washes are mostly cleared of cactus and brush and set out to fruits or track-gardened. It looks as tho the desert fauna and flora of San Fernando Valley were entirely doomed; it must be studied at once if the record is to be preserved.”

-Joseph Grinnell, Los Angeles, CA, 15 September 1917

If you had cast one look at the nascent suburbs and canals beginning to sprawl their way through California in the early 1900s, it wouldn’t have taken much to guess that the landscape was in for some major changes over the coming century.

Growth of the city of Sacramento, CA between 1920 and 2011.

And yet field biologists such as Joseph Grinnell, in writing about the times, are credited with noble foresight – not in predicting the future changes, but in how they prepared for their inevitability. For decades – beginning around 1900 and extending well into the 1950s – Joseph Grinnell and his colleagues from the Museum of Vertebrate Biology at UC Berkeley performed tireless treks throughout every region of the state, compiling exhaustive lists of the birds of California and exactly where they could be found.

Why? To create a record. Not for their time, but for the future.

“At this point I wish to emphasize what I believe to be the greatest value of our museum. This value will not, however, be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century, assuming that our material is safely preserved. And this is that the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California, wherever we now work.”

-Joseph Grinnell, 1910, “The Uses and Methods of a Research Museum”

Those materials were safely preserved – archived in museum catalogs and tucked away. Waiting like some prophesied artifact in an adventure film for the passage of those hundred years, when that destined “student of the future” would return to the very sites where Grinnell once stood, and there take stock of exactly how the bird communities have changed.

And oh, I cannot wait to get back into the field.

For the next month and a half I’ll be staking my tent throughout the Central Valley of California, filling in my own field journals from the same canyons and riverbanks where these pioneering field biologists once wrote their records of songbird nests and thoughtful monographs on the difficulties of studying gopher holes.

Previous work by the Grinnell Resurvey Project has already revealed a fascinating legacy of climate-induced range shifts by birds on the protected slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Now my project is diving into far more complicated landscapes – those shaped by the human hand into irrigated oases of food crops or palm-lined city suburbs. By returning to the sites once visited by Grinnell and measuring how they have changed – both in terms of habitat and the birds using it – I hope to answer one deceptively simple question: how have bird communities in California responded to a century of climate change and human development?

Read along for the birds.

And/or for the science.

Either way, I look forward to having you with me on this summer’s adventure.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Sarah:

    I looked reading your blog just now. Chris suggested that I read it guessing correctly how much I would enjoy it! As you may know I receded you joining Chris on the bird walks in my beloved garden. Old age and the insistence of adult children led to my leaving Berkeley and relocating where they live in Santa Barbara. I finally accepted that I will always miss Berkeley. I’m consigned to live in two worlds — the Bay Area of my imagination and the Santa Barbara I see as I look out the window.

    I. too, write a blog and am currently researching and writing about Santa Cruz Island which is swarming with researchers like you!

    I eagerly look forward to your future blogs.


    Phila Rogers

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