Armed with rakes and trowels, Dorsey High School students on Saturday traveled to a new state park in Culver City on a daunting conservation mission: to bring back the cactus wren, a bird not seen there in a decade.
Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park is a panorama of undeveloped hills and wilderness where gray foxes still prowl and red-tailed hawks soar within sight of downtown Los Angeles. Many other natural residents, however, have been vanquished by urban encroachment.
The two dozen students aimed to lay the foundation for a cactus wren stronghold by restoring the coastal sage scrub preferred by the bird, which builds its nests deep within the protective spines of cactus patches.
After weeding a square acre of steep hillside at the Culver City park, they planted cholla and prickly pear cactus, elderberry and black walnut trees.
"Cactus grows slowly, so my goal is long-term," said Fonda Williams, 17, who plans to enroll at UCLA next year.
"I'm hoping that years from now, I'll visit Baldwin Hills and discover that a pair of cactus wrens are calling the cactus I planted home."
Williams, a paid intern in Dorsey High's Green House Program to restore habitat and lure back the cactus wren, expects to publish the results of her experiments on cactus-planting techniques in the Audubon Society's newsletter.
Another student, Jesus Macias, 17, tested a prototype of a bulky, chest-high artificial nest he made out of plastic pipes and chicken wire.
"It is based on the needs of the cactus wren," he said, "and inspired by an architectural form found in nature: the DNA molecule."
Their work was part of an urban ecology campaign -- organized by Dorsey, the Los Angeles Audubon Society and a local business, Earthworks Restoration Inc. -- to transform selected inner-city youths into stewards of the environment.
Cactus wrens were last seen in Baldwin Hills 10 years ago, said Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Human activities are not entirely to blame for the demise of the bird, whose numbers have declined throughout Southern California.
Much of its former habitat is now covered with invasive plants, contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers, stressed by drought, surrounded by development and dominated by predators that now include feral cats and dogs.
Baldwin Hills is an ideal place for a comeback. The 50-acre ecosystem links sky, sandy hill country and sea via the Ballona Creek drainage system. Its gullies, grasslands and brush support quail, meadowlarks, wood rats and gopher snakes.
One day, they may be rejoined by the cactus wren, a relatively large bird with a streaked back and tail and broad white eyebrows.
Dorsey High, in South Los Angeles, has a reputation for making contributions to the environment. In March, 39 of the school's Global Warriors spent a Saturday weeding the endangered California least tern's nesting grounds near Marina del Rey.
That effort, and Dorsey's program to lure back the cactus wren, dovetails with the National Audubon Society's belief that it must engage more minorities.
Dorsey's director of interpretation, Stacey Vigallon, could not agree more.
"These students depend on the cactus wren for getting hands-on training to become informed citizens with an appreciation for a healthy environment and a green economy," Vigallon said. "The bird depends on them for habitat restoration and, in the not-too-distant future, votes on environmental issues crucial to its survival."