Seven of the endangered birds are released into the wild at the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mike Aguilera / Sea World

Seven endangered light-footed Ridgway’s rails were released into the wild at the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday, an historic step in repopulating the birds in their native habitat.

The hen-sized, secretive marsh bird was once abundant in Southern California wetlands, but rapidly declined due to the loss of over 90 percent of its salt marsh habitat. The rail was first listed as endangered in 1969.

Since 1998, conservation partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, San Diego Zoo Global, SeaWorld San Diego, Living Coast Discovery Center, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy and others worked together in a captive breeding effort, leading to the release of more than 530 rails into the wild.

Helping to release the birds on Tuesday were Mike and Patricia McCoy, who led the effort to establish the refuge on the border.

“The whole story comes together here,” said Mike McCoy. “First you have to be able to save the land, then you need to do the research in order to breed them in captivity, and then you have to make sure they’re being released into a habitat they are protected in. This all ties together, you cannot have one without the other.”

During the 2018 population census, an estimated 713 rails were detected throughout 23 surveyed salt marshes in Southern California. At Tijuana Slough, there were approximately 124.

These birds rely entirely on healthy marsh habitats for their survival, and the refuge still represents some of the best remaining habitat in Southern California for their recovery.

“We are indebted to the McCoys and we thank them, among others, for fighting to protect the rail’s habitat here at the estuary,” said refuge manager Brian Collins. “This endangered species recovery work could never happen without the contributions of all of our partners, who show the same kind of optimism, resilience, dedication and commitment to the public good that the McCoys showed back in the day.”

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.