SCIENTIFIC NAME: Polioptila californica californica
HABITAT: Low-lying, level coastal sage scrub
LIFE HISTORY: Nonmigratory, limited range. Nests in sage scrub, typically less than one meter off the ground. Thrives in younger, less dense areas of sage, such as those that have burned eight or nine years prior.
THREATS: Habitat loss due to development
RANGE: Coastal southern California south through Baja California
CURRENT POPULATION: 77,000
This tiny, gray slip of a songbird, whose call sounds like a cat's "meow," is found mostly in California's southern coast. Despite its unassuming stature, the gnatcatcher has expensive taste in real estate, favoring the same low-lying, level, coastal sage scrub habitat coveted by agribusiness and developers. This habitat is considered the most endangered in the United States; an estimated 70 percent to 90 percent of it has vanished in total, and 33 percent since the bird was listed as threatened in 1993.
Protecting the gnatcatcher is inextricably linked to preserving some of the last undeveloped open space on the southern California coast. NRDC filed the petition that resulted in the gnatcatcher's listing as a threatened species, and was one of the first environmental groups to sue to force the designation of critical habitat for listed species.
After years of litigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated more than 500,000 acres of coastal sage scrub in southern California as critical habitat for the gnatcatcher. Today NRDC is fighting developers to keep those and other protections for the gnatcatcher under the Endangered Species Act in place.