God's Eye on the Sparrow

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

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," says Post 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 twenty 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."

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

Pimm sees the AOU review as total vindication of his research. 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.

If Post and Lehtinen have "a case to make, they could publish criticism in the top-flight journals in which I publish my work," writes Pimm. "They haven't. Lehtinen rambles on about all kinds of numbers in the hope that I will pay him some attention. I don't.

"He's asking for another committee to talk about the science. Bring it on."

Catfights over birds may be as natural as the Everglades themselves. During the last year and a half of the Clinton administration, "we would spend days in arguments" about the sparrow, recalls University of Miami law professor Mary Doyle, who served as counselor to Interior Department Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "You have a combative tribe, with a sad history and some serious grievances, versus one brown, uncharismatic bird. It is frustrating to listen to, sorting out the science. It has slowed restoration. But if there was an easy way out of this, we'd be beyond it already."

In a contrary opinion, the National Resources Defense Council's lawyer, Brad Sewell, argues that the attention paid to the sparrow's plight has helped speed the pace of restoration, since floodgates have been closed, reservoirs opened, and some dikes destroyed to protect the bird's nesting sites. "Here is a species saying, 'Accomplish restoration,'" Sewell observes. "If the sparrow is driven to extinction, restoration would probably go slower, because suddenly you wouldn't have to tell Sweetwater they couldn't pump water into the Everglades. Things would just stagnate."

In recent years perhaps no one has spent more time in the field with the sparrow than Lockwood, a professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who since 1993 has been studying the bird's nesting habits. She has documented the damaging effects of high water and fire on sparrow reproduction as the birds' numbers have steadily declined.

Still Lockwood remains optimistic. "The principles that will work for the sparrow will work for the other species as well," she says. "The world did not collapse when we lost the dusky, so will it if we lose the Cape Sable? Probably not. But is that an ethical solution, to play God and let it go? The only way I can imagine that happening is by accident."

Lehtinen agrees. "That bird does not have to go extinct," he says. "But we have to get real on single-species management, and practice some tough love. The enviros are doing all they can to make [the bird] charismatic. They want to make it everything. They practice Animal Farmequality: Some are more equal than others."

Everglades restoration is huge, and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow is small. But the fates of each may be intertwined for years.

And who can know when or if the sparrow will sing its swan song? The dusky disappeared, but the northern spotted owl is still here, as is the snail darter, a now-renowned little fish that led the U.S. Supreme Court to halt work on a Tennessee dam back in 1978. "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!" wrote Keats of another bird, in another time. To which the sparrow might reply: Tli-zheeeeee.

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