For the Birds

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

The two birds, which turn out to be a mother and child, offer a jackpot of data. From his backpack, Okines lays out a series of instruments that allows him to weigh the birds; take measurements of their beaks, wings, and overall length; and then, with a dollop of Superglue, affix to their filament-thin legs four bands that assign the sparrows permanent numbers and mark the date they were caught and examined. To aid a study being run by a Brazilian colleague, Marques checks the birds for parasites.

"These sparrows occupy such a fine niche in the world," says Okines, who grew up in Hastings, England, wanting to do exactly this work. "They have to have the right kind of grass, the right water levels to nest, the right size territory. But they are wonderful birds."

Indeed, up-close, the sparrow is no longer dark and nondescript but a colorful sprite of intricate detail. Its olive back is distinctly streaked with varying hues of gray and brown, while the white canvas of its breast is marked by vertical black stripes. Over each eye, the sparrow wears a dash of brilliant yellow, and a patch of yellow shows up again on the edge of the wing. The eyes are brown, and dark whiskers jut from each side of its alabaster throat. Full-grown, a Cape Sable seaside sparrow weighs little more than half an ounce. But in miniature, they are as spectacular as eagles.

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

Although not gregarious animals, the sparrows aren't bores, according to scientists who have hung out with them. "They are like someone you see at a party just listening to everyone else. They seem shy at first," observes ornithologist Julie Lockwood. "But once you engage them in conversation, they will talk your ear off."

And what do they say? Answers Lockwood: "'Leave me alone.'"

But what are the sparrows doing here in the middle of the Everglades? After all, they were first spotted near, and named after, Cape Sable, a southwestern coastal marshland at least 25 miles away. Nor is this seaside sparrow beside the sea.

Lockwood supposes that despite its moniker, the bird may well have always lived on what is now park land. "No one surveyed inland until 1954," she says, "so there is a big gap in our knowledge."

But the scientists favored by the tribe say the bird most likely migrated east from its original range. That's why Lehtinen calls the sparrow "an invasive species." By protecting it in the park, Lehtinen says, "all you're doing is growing a population to drown it later."

Pimm insists that where the bird is now is of no consequence. "Lehtinen almost certainly knows what the Endangered Species Act says about the purpose of the act," he says. "[The act] intends to protect not just the species but the ecosystem. Indeed, destroying ecosystems is the way in which almost all endangered species get that way."

Pimm is an expert in endangered species and an editor of Science, but he is not an ornithologist. And he does make mistakes.

In 1998, Pimm touched off a firestorm among Everglades combatants when he announced that the sparrow population seemed to be rebounding after water was diverted. And he offered some numbers representing a preliminary head count. But those early numbers proved to be wrong, and Pimm had to retract his assessment of recovery.

That publicized error led the Miccosukees to hire Will Post to review Pimm's work. And Post, a former curator of the Florida Museum of Natural History who now serves as ornithologist for the Charleston Museum in South Carolina, found Pimm guilty of "shoddy science."

Among Post's criticisms, which were eventually published in the August 2000 issue of Florida Field Naturalist: Pimm underestimates the sparrow's reproductive capacity and its ability to adapt if forced into another habitat and uses flawed survey methods to overstate its population decline. "It seems to me they had an agenda," Post says of Pimm and his team. "They had answers looking for questions. And the answers were that the sparrow is endangered and would be extinct in 20 years."

But recalling well the dusky's demise, Post adds that if the Cape Sable sparrow is in such dire straits, then a captive breeding program is in order.

The academic uproar did not end there. Post's critique led to another review of Pimm's work by a six-member panel of experts appointed by the American Ornithologists' Union. They too expressed some doubts about the data used to make predictions on the bird's numbers and future but concluded that Pimm and other researchers were making good use of the methods and resources available. "Therefore, the primary long-range goal should be to alter water management in order to produce hydro periods that more closely match historic ones," the panel wrote. As for Post's suggestion that a captive breeding program be started, the panel concluded: "risky, unnecessary, premature and distracting at this time."

Pimm sees the American Ornithologists' Union review as vindication. He is equally dismissive of Post and his accomplishments. "My papers are in top international journals (something Post has managed only a few times in his career)," Pimm writes in a June 25 e-mail from Queensland, Australia, where he was to deliver an address on rainforest ecology.

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