For the Birds

Should 2700 little sparrows be allowed to hold up the reclaiming of the Everglades?

"Historically," Pimm grants, "I understand why the Miccosukees have no great love for the Interior Department. But the sparrow cannot be sacrificed."

To protect the sparrow from high water, which can wash out the springtime nests the birds build just inches above the ground in clumps of grass, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a biological opinion, based in part on Pimm's studies, that requires water to be impounded in conservation area 3A, north of the strip of land along Tamiami Trail where most of the 500-member tribe lives. That, according to tribe scientists, floods out some 88,000 acres used for tribal ceremonies and hunting grounds, as well as the critical habitat of the snail kite, a hawk-like bird that is also endangered.

"It's like in Vietnam," Lehtinen fumes. "They want to destroy the Everglades in order to save it."

Mike Clary
Bird bander David Okines, in Everglades National Park with student assistant Raquel Marques, is trying to net, measure, and number the world's dwindling population of Cape Sable seaside sparrows
Mike Clary
Bird bander David Okines, in Everglades National Park with student assistant Raquel Marques, is trying to net, measure, and number the world's dwindling population of Cape Sable seaside sparrows

Pimm and other environmentalists practice what Lehtinen derides as "single-species management," he says, a slavish attention to one animal that ignores the larger issues. And besides, Lehtinen adds, he has never even laid eyes on this sparrow. And he has looked. Between courtroom skirmishes and appearances before congressional subcommittees, he and sparrow expert Will Post went out "slogging through the Everglades," says Lehtinen, a veteran of sawgrass camping trips who has twice been bitten by poisonous snakes. "And we didn't see it."

True, Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis is hard to see. Although it is one of the largest sparrows, the Cape Sable is only six inches from beak to tail, and it sticks low to the ground.

After Pimm remarked in an interview that no one would ever write an ode to a seaside sparrow, someone did. It is not Keatsian.

"And now not flood nor fire can distract me/From soppy verse," Tom Fucigna, a biologist with a Boynton Beach consulting firm, waxed. "For there's no fate worse/Than extinction without poetry to fly on."

But alas, the sparrow is no nightingale, either. Here's how various bird guides transcribe its buzzy, insect-like song:

Tli-zheeeeee -- The Sibley Guide to Birds.

Cutcut, zhe-eeeeeeee -- Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds.

Tuptup zhe-eeeeeee -- Audubon Handbook, Eastern Birds.

The sparrow is not a major cog in the food chain. It eats insects, and its young or eggs may occasionally be eaten by snakes or rats. It has almost zero potential for tourism promotion, no commercial use as bait or snack food, and would not make a companionable pet.

This sparrow epitomizes low profile. It is so small, so shy, and so unspectacular that even if its numbers were great, few would notice. All six areas where the bird is known to exist are in marshy grassland prairies, inhospitable and even legally inaccessible to humans. Serious birders hoping to catch a glimpse of the Cape Sable cannot just go tromping off into the sedge and sawgrass where they live. Instead, they must get up early and park along the main road in Everglades National Park, hoping for a glimpse at several hundred yards when the birds dart up above the grass.

Much about the bird remains a mystery. "The controversy surrounding the existence and causes of a global decline in the sparrow is borne from the scientific uncertainty surrounding almost every facet of the biology of this difficult-to-observe subspecies," wrote a panel of ornithologists appointed three years ago to review the literature on the bird.

One person who does get up-close is David Okines, who has spent the past several springs trying to catch and tag every Cape Sable in Everglades National Park. On a recent weekday morning, Okines rises before dawn and, with Brazilian graduate student Raquel Marques, 26 years old, drives a few miles down the main road from his temporary housing inside the park to an area just east of Mahogany Hammock. "These are very finicky birds," says Okines, a 42-year-old professional birdbander recruited by Pimm through the British Trust for Ornithology. "Last year, fire went through this plot, so it gave us the ideal opportunity to see how they would come back."

Shouldering small backpacks, Okines picks up a tape recorder, Marques grabs a rolled-up mist net, and they walk out into the waist-high grass. The rainy season has not yet started, and the ground is carpeted by dry, flaky periphyton, a spongy plant. The temperature rises with the sun, but there are no mosquitoes. After a few minutes' hike, Okines snaps on the tape recorder, which emits a raspy call that repeats over and over. Suddenly a small, dark bird flies up briefly from the grass and just as quickly disappears.

But both Okines and Marques spot the bird immediately, and Marques is already unfurling the net, a tight mesh of fine thread. When the net is up -- strung between two aluminum poles as if for a volleyball game in hostile terrain -- Okines drops the squawking tape recorder on the ground downwind of the net, and the two researchers move a few yards away.

Minutes later, the bird surfaces again, heading for what sounds like a territorial interloper. And then another bird flies up, weakly, and Okines rushes toward it. "A fledgling," he says, cupping the young sparrow gently in his hand. Now Marques and Okines walk through the grass and drive the other bird toward the net. The sparrow hits the mesh and is entrapped in the cord.

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