God's Eye on the Sparrow

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

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 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 delicate 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.

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

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 allow 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 a permanent number and mark the date on which they were caught and examined. To aid a study being run by a colleague in Brazil, 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.

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 Cape Sable moniker, the bird may well have always lived on what is now parkland. "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." He compares the birds in Everglades National Park to Israeli settlers who have moved into disputed territory on the West Bank. By protecting the sparrow 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, an editor of Science, a publication he calls "the most prestigious science journal on the planet," a man with many degrees and a mile-long résumé. 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, who worked on the dusky, 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."

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