God's Eye on the Sparrow

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

But it is not the silliness that most galls Lehtinen. No, what really infuriates Lehtinen and his chief client, the Miccosukees, is what he calls Pimm's poor science in support of claims that the bird's numbers are declining.

"They are not doing anything for that bird," says Lehtinen. "But it is politically useful. They are using it and the Endangered Species Act as an excuse to gain regulatory control of the water management system. That is the enviros' goal: to control water delivery themselves."

For all of their differences -- to say nothing of their personal animosity for one another -- Pimm and Lehtinen do agree on the ultimate aim of this squabble: clean water and an Everglades ecosystem that resembles the one Marjory Stoneman Douglas first described in her seminal 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass. But the restoration project is stunningly complex, impossibly long-term, and no sure thing to succeed. Stuart J. Appelbaum, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief in charge of the whole project, was quoted in the Washington Post in June as saying even he had no idea if it would work.

Ornithologist Julie Lockwood, with a crew of students recently in the mosquito-thick Glades, says the sparrow has a simple message: "Leave me alone"
Colby Katz
Ornithologist Julie Lockwood, with a crew of students recently in the mosquito-thick Glades, says the sparrow has a simple message: "Leave me alone"

Thus it is not surprising that a single issue could come to dominate the debate. And the conundrum posed by the sparrow is a real one, involving the movement of water, avian science, politics, and the long-simmering resentment of a small but proud Indian tribe that again sees the federal government running roughshod over cultural tradition.

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

To protect the sensitive sparrow from high water, which can wash out the springtime nests the bird builds 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 live. 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 hawklike bird which is also endangered.

"It's like in Vietnam," fumes Lehtinen, echoing a famous paradox that emerged from the war in which he almost died. "They want to destroy the Everglades in order to save it."

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, adds Lehtinen, he has never even laid eyes on this sparrow. And he has looked. In 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 saw grass 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, insectlike 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 saw grass 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 last 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, drives a few miles down the main road from his temporary housing inside Everglades National 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."

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