The Most Endangered Bird in the Continental U.S.
In 1969 (four years before passage of the Endangered Species Act) the service couldn’t do much about the state’s proposed highway through the heart of dusky habitat. But it then frittered away the opportunity for captive breeding with endless paper shuffling. When only males survived, Audubon Florida proposed hybridizing them with females of the closely related Scott’s seaside sparrow, explaining that by backcrossing it would be possible to get birds that were almost 97 percent dusky in just five generations. “The gene pool of the unique population of seaside sparrows will be lost forever with the death of these surviving males,” it warned. The service refused to even consider the plan, calling it “ludicrous.” When finally it relented, allowing an attempt by Disney World— which had the facilities, funds, and inclination—time had run out. A few hybrids were produced, but they didn’t live long enough for backcrossing. The last pure dusky, “Orange Band,” ancient and blind in one eye, died on June 16, 1987.
But as the old-guard bureaucracy retires, the Fish and Wildlife Service improves. Back when it was supposedly recovering the dusky, it destroyed habitat at the request of mosquito-control pooh-bahs who wanted it flooded and county commissioners who wanted it drained. And when Brian Sharp, the dedicated biologist who led the dusky recovery project, complained about this misfeasance he got disappeared to Oregon. Now the service is securing funds for much-needed Florida grasshopper sparrow research (so far about $1,116,600, a major accomplishment with the current funding crunch) and putting together the 150,000-acre Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge that will protect additional sparrow habitat. And these days the service as well as state resource agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection not only produce but support tireless, talented professionals like Sneckenberger and Miller who are no less passionate in their defense of endangered species than was Sharp.
Sneckenberger, Gray, and Miller showed Sartore and me some of the habitat work. We inspected old and new prescribed burns that have counteracted years of fire suppression. The burns have revealed hundreds of fire-ant mounds that Miller douses with poison.
We saw swaths of prairie torn up by feral hogs, which destroy the habitat of sparrows and likely eat their eggs and hatchlings. But two years earlier I’d seen more damage. The park has contracted with rodeo rider Spook Whidden, who, with the help of dogs, chases down the hogs on horseback, wrestles them to the ground (once getting part of a finger bitten off), ties them up, and sells them to ranchers and hunting clubs. “Hogs don’t surrender easy,” he recently understated to the Tampa Bay Times.
We drove out to Audubon’s former 7,300-acre Kissimmee Prairie Sanctuary, added to the park 12 years ago. When Gray was managing it, neighbors plugged up drainage pipes, flooding the sanctuary and extirpating its sparrows. To force drainage he’d obtained a federal court order, still in effect. Eventually the birds returned.
Few people know that eastern prairies exist. In the afternoon a freshening south wind sent waves across a diverse sea of grasses, forbs, and flowering plants. And in the distance, islands of cabbage palms and live oaks rose from a muted gray-green surface that stretched to the horizons. All these plants evolved with and depend on fires caused by 25 to 30 lightning strikes per square mile per year. In a few days butterflies would appear to start the massive pollination process—more species than recorded on any other land owned by the state. A Florida burrowing owl perched on a fence post, silhouetted by the low sun. A white-tailed kite floated overhead. And alligators lounged in a flowage beside “No Swimming” signs. To borrow the words of John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Audubon has had a presence here since the early 1930s, when it started leading tours for the Holy Grail of birding, the five endemic species of the dry prairie: Florida sandhill crane, Audubon’s crested caracara, Florida mottled duck, Florida grasshopper sparrow, and Florida burrowing owl. We encountered all these birds and many more. While habitat restoration has yet to work for theFloridagrasshopper sparrow, it’s a smashing success for everything else. “The sparrow is the flagship bird for the dry prairie,” says Noss. “It’s the only argument we’ve been able to make for land acquisition and other protections. Without this bird there’s no legal hook to create more dry-prairie habitat.”
“We’re creating more habitat all the time,” remarks Sneckenberger. “So why is the population going down instead of up?”
While it’s not too late to save the Florida grasshopper sparrow, we’ll have to get lucky fast—that is, diagnose the problem and fix it. Even if the effort fails, it can provide an important lesson: that earth’s biodiversity is priceless and belongs not to us but to unborn generations of humans and all life-forms. In his eulogy to the dusky seaside sparrow, Brian Sharp wrote: “It has been suggested that you might not be missed. To think that a necklace would never miss one of its pearls, or a song one of its notes. Neither this spring, nor ever again, will your exuberant performances appear on nature’s stage. . . . Your loss is our world and ourselves diminished.”