Most people think parks are invariably good for wildlife. After all, look at all those bears and bison in Yellowstone; if the park didn't exist, there certainly would be a lot fewer of them. If that's true of Yellowstone, it must be true for other parks, even if on a much smaller scale, right?
That's what I once thought. So I wasn't distressed when I learned that the city of Seattle wanted to convert the land next to my home into a park. In fact, I thought it was a good idea; a park certainly is preferable to condominiums.
My home is on Alki Point, a part of Seattle that juts into Puget Sound. Seattle's first white settlers landed here, and one of the city's oldest families once lived in a mansion on the hillside above where my house now stands. Below the mansion was an arboretum with a small pond fed by natural springs. It was a botanical showcase around the turn of the century and was even featured in a color illustration on the cover of the 1911 Lilly seed catalog.
When my wife and I moved to our home in 1967, the mansion was long gone. The arboretum had become a nearly impenetrable thicket of brush, blackberry vines and bamboo. The brambles discouraged human entry, but they provided an ideal habitat for a surprising variety of wildlife. California quail, ring-necked pheasant, raccoons and rabbits all called the old arboretum home, and scores of mallards frequented the grassy strip along the beach in front.
It's always a pleasure to encounter wildlife in the middle of a big city, and we felt especially fortunate to be living next to so much of it. Most of Alki Point now is crisscrossed with busy streets lined with houses, apartment buildings and business establishments, but the old arboretum had remained a quiet oasis for wild creatures. There they had all the essentials: cover, food and water.
The quail seemed most numerous, and often we would find them in our backyard or driveway. Only rarely did we ever actually see chicks, but early one spring morning I surprised a mother quail in our driveway with 18 fuzzy chicks in tow. Our whole family watched until the mother led them back to the safety of the blackberry vines. I suppose some eventually fell prey to the stray cats that roamed the neighborhood, but the number of quail that always seemed to be around gave assurance that their reproductive rate was sufficient to keep ahead of the cats.
The pheasants were much more secretive and seldom left the sanctuary. Occasionally we would catch a fleeting glimpse of one through a gap in the brambles, but the most spectacular evidence of their presence would come each spring, before the nesting season. Then, in the early evenings, we would hear the cock pheasants calling loudly.
For some reason the raccoons seemed to prefer foraging in the neighborhood on the far side of the arboretum, but one night I discovered a fat, old one in our yard. Its eyes were like a couple of tiny full moons in my flashlight beam.
The rabbits were from domestic stock gone wild; there were white ones, gray ones, buff-colored ones and mottled ones, and our children named them after the rabbits in Watership Down.
We enjoyed the company of our wild friends for nearly a decade. The family that owned the abandoned arboretum had sold the property to the city for a park in 1971, but the land was left untouched. Then, early in 1976, the city announced that planning for the new park would soon get under way.