God's Eye on the Sparrow

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

If only the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow were a panda. Or had big mournful eyes, like Bambi. Or could project just a little more personality.

"It's not like they're gorgeous," concedes field biologist Julie Lockwood. "And they are not easy to see anyway, since they hardly come [up] above the grass. They are just little birds, going about their bird lives. And though everyone else has given them so much meaning, they have no clue."

No clue, that is, to the pivotal role they play in the largest and most complex environmental engineering project in U.S. history, the eight-billion-dollar plan to restore the Everglades. The goal of the project, which will take years to complete, is nothing less than a giant replumbing job aimed at restoring a more natural water flow to an imperiled ecosystem that has been nearly choked to death by dikes, canals, pollution, and abuse. And since every known Cape Sable seaside sparrow on Earth lives inside the Everglades ecosystem, the tiny bird is viewed by some of those involved as the biggest single obstacle to the project's success.

illustration by Carol Powers
Birds in hand: Rare, endangered, and clueless about their role in restoration, two Cape Sable seaside sparrows are temporarily caught to be banded
Mike Clary
Birds in hand: Rare, endangered, and clueless about their role in restoration, two Cape Sable seaside sparrows are temporarily caught to be banded

Never, perhaps, has a creature so small been saddled with so much weight in a matter so momentous -- the fate of the only park in the hemisphere to be designated an "International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site" by the United Nations. Really, it's a wonder that this bird can get off the ground at all.

Earlier this month (July 3), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on an interim plan to protect the bird by juggling water levels near its nesting grounds. But Corps deputy district engineer Richard Bonner acknowledges that the scheme is "something we sort of compromised on" and "not the best of all worlds." Translation: No one's happy.

Chief among those with ruffled feathers are the Miccosukees, a famously combative Indian tribe that lives in the Everglades; it is fiercely proud of having never surrendered to federal forces after being chased into the marsh during the nineteenth-century Seminole Wars. Tribal chairman Billy Cypress charges that government policies designed to save the bird from extinction are "dooming the Tribe to cultural genocide as the sparrow is now worth more than the Miccosukee."

Many residents of western Miami-Dade County see the bird standing in the way of permanent flood control. Sweetwater Mayor Jose Diaz goes so far as to suggest that measures to help the bird could pose a drowning danger to humans. "The bottom line is that I want my kids to see the Everglades," says Diaz, "but if people are getting wiped out, then what's more important? The bird has wings, for God's sake."

Many anglers and hunters blame the sparrow for damage to Lake Okeechobee, since water managers have begun to regulate water levels in order to protect the bird's nesting grounds to the south. "If it's a choice between the lake and the bird," environmental activist Wayne Nelson has told the press, "let's drown the bird."

Whoa. Comments such as those make the bird's defenders livid. "The sparrow is trying to lead us down the Yellow Brick Road of Everglades restoration," snaps Brad Sewell, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The bird is simply telling us what should be done for the entire ecosystem. And if the bird is complicating your life bureaucratically, well, I don't have much sympathy for that."

The sparrow is now as rare as it is reclusive. About 2700 of the olive-backed birds are all that is left of a population that has teetered on the edge of extinction almost since the day it was discovered down in the tall grass 84 years ago. The sparrow was included when the original list of endangered species was drawn up in 1967, listed when the Endangered Species Act (ESA) took effect in 1973, and it remains there today. (Originally listed as a separate species, the Cape Sable was reclassified a subspecies of seaside sparrows in 1973.)

Despite its diminutive size and a shyness that has ensured few people have ever seen the feathered mite, the sparrow's inclusion as one of 387 animals, including 78 birds, listed under the Endangered Species Act makes it a major player in the fractious drama over restoration. Under federal law the birds are immune from anyone or anything that might "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect" them, or their habitat. The Corps' Bonner describes the ESA as "a trump act. It trumps other legislation. It is a powerful tool." In other words, this little sparrow rules the roost.

But that has not stopped many powerful players in the Everglades replumbing project to daydream about how much easier life would be if all 2700 Cape Sables shaped themselves into a flock and just flew off into oblivion. Just imagine: Without this bite-sized bird, the ambitious plan to repair the Everglades by restoring the natural sheet flow of water down the peninsula might be much further along. Dikes might have been removed, floodgates opened, and water rerouted in such a way that animal life thrives, land and sea vegetation blossoms, and millions of South Florida residents are assured that a basic requirement for life -- fresh water -- had been safeguarded and preserved.

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