The Disappearing Frenchman and the State Bird of California

With the month of September having drawn to a close, and the cooler weather descending upon us (yes, even here in San Francisco), it seems a fitting time to draw attention to the contributions of Jean-François Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse and his remarkable (and ill-fated) Pacific voyage. Because it was 223 years ago last month that La Pérouse landed his first French expedition to California, a trip that led to the first published account and image of the California Quail, our state bird since 1931.

Although the report of La Pérouse’s voyage is titled Voyage de La Pérouse autour du Monde, he did not circumvent the globe, but rather thoroughly explored the Pacific Ocean, landing in such places as Chile, Alaska, California, Macao, the Philippines, Siberia, the Russian possessions of Sakhalin and Kamchatka, Hawaii, Easter Island, and Australia. His expedition was sponsored by Louis XVI; the French were late to the game of Pacific exploration, following in the wake of voyages launched by Great Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and the Portuguese.

La Pérouse commanded two frigates, L’Astrolabe and La Boussole, and travelled with a group of seventeen respected scientists, engineers, and naturalists, as well as top-of-the-line scientific instruments, and an impressive natural history library. He had an incredible amount of resources and support, yet he launched from Brest in northwestern France on August 1, 1785 and never saw France again.

In California, La Pérouse said of our little birds that he saw them in coveys of 300-400, and that they were fat and delicious. Here in San Francisco, many of us have grown quite protective of Callipepla californica. A bird once seen in great numbers in Golden Gate Park, it is estimated that the California Quail population in the Park had plummeted from over 1,200 birds at the turn of the century to fewer than 15 individuals in 1999. For most of the last decade, there have been focused efforts to bring the quail back to Golden Gate Park, by restoring habitat and building an understanding of the plight of our little bird. If you’re lucky, you might see or hear California Quail here in the Park again; they are definitely making a comeback.

La Pérouse was not so fortunate, as he, his ships, and his crew were lost after leaving Botany Bay in Australia in March 1788. Miraculously, La Pérouse gave his journal of the voyage to date, as well as some scientific research, to the crew member who had served as a Russian translator, Baron Jean Baptiste Barthelmy de Lesseps. Lesseps disembarked in Kamchatka. He travelled over land back to Paris, and the material be brought back was published at the expense of the French Republic, with the first volume appearing in 1797.

To view this week’s Book of the Week, Voyage de La Pérouse autour du Monde (1797), contributed by the Missouri Botanical Garden, click here.

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Rebecca Morin was the head Librarian at the California Academy of Sciences.