The (Sunshine) State of Florida Birds
Everglade Snail Kite
ONCE UPON A TIME IN FLORIDA — THE time when Hamilton Disston bought 4 million acres of Everglades wetlands for 25 cents per acre and tried to drain them, and Henry Flagler began building railroads along the southern peninsula’s Atlantic coast — a Gulf Coast traveler reported seeing a burrowing owl colony three miles long, inhabited by several hundred pairs of owls. The long-legged little predator of insects, lizards, mice, prairie dogs and the like, called the “howdy bird” by cowboys for its habit of nodding in the direction of passersby when it spotted them, fashions its own burrows or inhabits those of others, including man-made holes in such environs as golf courses.
That fact suggests it is adaptable. But no matter how adaptable it may be, Florida’s year-round native also requires open ground and prairies — the drier habitats sought first and most eagerly by developers and builders.
Thus, burrowing owls typify the troubled evolutions of a number of Florida birds that have managed to survive the last 150 years but now are threatened or endangered by vastly shrunken ranges, by human toxins, and by changes in climate and food opportunities.
The list is sobering: two bats, the Florida bonneted and the gray have made the endangered and threatened species list; the Everglades snail kite; the Cape Sable seaside sparrow; both Kirtland’s and Bachman’s warblers; red-cockaded woodpeckers; Audubon’s crested caracara; the red knot; the piping plover; the Florida scrub-jay; wood storks; roseate terns and the Florida grasshopper sparrow.
In the case of the latter, ornithologists say the little five-inch grasshopper sparrow is spiraling down the chillingly termed “extinction vortex” and may disappear this year. An inhabitant of grasslands and open areas in central Florida for 3,000 years — a bird sometimes coexisting with burrowing owls — now only about 70 individuals, including just 22 females, were known to exist at the beginning of 2018; a few others live in captivity, according to news reports.
To put the once-upon-a-time in perspective, author Jack de Golia described the history of birds and humans here in a single paragraph of his 1978 book, “Everglades: The Story Behind The Scenery,” a history as true now as it was then:
“Back in 1870, when only 85 people lived along the coast of southeastern Florida, an estimated 2 million wading birds inhabited the Everglades during dry seasons. During the late 19th century, plume-hunting reduced these birds to only several hundred thousand. This dramatic loss spurred protective laws in Florida — and in New York, where the plumes had been shipped to millinery houses. Thus protected, the wading-bird population rebounded to near its original level.”
Delightful as that seems to be, it’s not the end of the story.
“Then, in the 1940s and after, the character of the Everglades itself began to change. As South Florida grew, the Everglades shrank, its waters controlled for man’s uses. By the mid-1970s, wadingbird numbers had dropped back to a few hundred thousand, about 10 percent of what it had been a century before. Biologists actively study these birds, looking for clues that might lead to stopping or even reversing the decline. As yet the only thing certain is that life in the Everglades is more fragile than anyone ever thought.”
And not just in the Everglades.
The traveler’s recollection of burrowing owls in vast numbers dating from the 1880s is particularly poignant now, as the New Year arrives in the Sunshine State and the 119th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count continues to unfold across Florida, the nation, the North American continent and the world.
The longest-running community science bird project on the planet, its counts will not include a lot of burrowing owls.
The owl’s most fertile and reliable winter territories have always been southwest Florida and southern coastal California (its summer range includes portions of the central Midwest and West). But now it holds the unenviable position of being the cover model for a lavishly photographed Audubon report on the decline of too many birds: “314 Species on the Brink.” To see the report, go to www.//climate.audubon.org/.
If you are looking to build a new home in Southwest Florida, contact Nick Cornwell at Nova Homes of South Florida at 239.776.5076 or BuildNow@NovaHomesBuilder.com.