Roger Real Drouin
An Essay on the Everglades Hawk
About four miles out, on the edge of the slash pines, I saw a shadow approaching from overhead, and I looked up. The bird was black, soaring like a vulture, but it was flying quite low and then it beat its wings—a movement too swift and erratic for a turkey vulture. I captured four photos of the bird in flight before I realized it had a snail, about the size of a golf ball, in its hooked bill.
It was a male Everglades Snail Kite, one of several threatened bird species that had once thrived in the marshes and swamps of South Florida. The following week, I spotted a snail kite in the same location at the southern edge of the slash pines at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. I liked the idea that it was the same Everglades Snail Kite, but even if it wasn't, the two sightings were cause for excitement for this amateur birder. Over the next few weeks I become obsessed with this unusual hawk that survives solely on the Apple Snail that grows in the Everglades waters. I didn't realize I became obsessed until a friend noted how our recent conversations turned to the snail kite. With threats to our country's wild lands growing by the day, obsessions like this obsession often bring eventual heartbreak. Sometimes the bad news comes more often than the good. I continued to hike along the canal trail at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, heading further into the slash pines each time. I was searching for one more glimpse of the kite. That was early spring, some three months ago.
The Everglades Snail Kite population has been declining steadily since 2001, and I found out that one scientific model projection puts the species on a track towards near extinction in 2030 if conditions don't change. That means fewer than 50 Snail Kites by as early as 2030. "The bottom line is the population is not doing well. That is not an overstatement, it is an understatement," said UF Research Ecologist Dr. Wiley Kitchens.
Changes to the flow of South Florida's wetlands, made worse by recent drought years, have sent this locally endemic species of snail-eating hawk into a "precarious situation," said Kitchens, who has closely studied the Snail Kite since 1990.
On one of my hikes I thought about the lightness of birds.
As Craig Childs notes in his book Crossing Paths, the bones are thin, hollow inside, filled with oxygen, and supported with trusses that keep them strong. The wing bones are fused to other bones to brace together the moving parts in flight and landing. Look at the bones of a bird and, although quite distorted, they will match a mammal's skeleton. The wings anatomically correspond exactly to each human bone from arm to the longest finger. But in birds, the bones are simplified, compacted so that the humerus, radius and metacarpals are welded into a single, pivoting elongated bone.
The muscles are different too, evolved for agile flight, aligned to control feathers independently. The respiratory system can propel some birds to an altitude of thirty-six thousand feet where no other animal could breathe without slipping directly into unconsciousness. Birds' lungs are anatomically very complex, funneling a crosscurrent of air and blood that allows them to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen much faster than any mammal.
Of the birds that no longer fly, the bones of the dispersive Passenger Pigeon would have probably been about equal in weight to the total weight of its feathers. Last seen in 1914. Cause of extinction: hunting on a massive scale. The skeleton of the Chatham Rail probably weighed slightly more. Last seen in 1900. Cause of extinction: destruction of habitat for sheep pasture. The gentle-natured and unwary Laughing Owl, with its beautiful yellowish-brown and white plumage, had the large wing radius bones of an owl. Last specimen was found dead in 1914. Cause of extinction: predation by introduced predators such as cats, and widespread destruction of its habitat. The tiny and drab Dusky Seaside Sparrow had the delicate wing bones and tibia of the small Passeriformes. Field observations of banded Dusky Sparrows showed that the sparrow rarely traveled further than a mile or two in its lifetime. The last believed Dusky Sparrow, called "Orange Band," was left by himself in a Central Florida protected habitat, after what was believed to be the last five remaining male sparrows died. He became old for a sparrow and blind in one eye. He died March 31, 1986. His delicate bones became a science specimen. Cause of extinction: Use of DOT pesticide starting in the 1940s, and habitat destruction to make way for Kennedy Center space shuttle compound.
I think about the lightness of birds.
For Kitchens, the UF ecologist, there is a faint glimmer of good news for the snail kite. I spoke to Kitchens, whose team is in the field banding Snail Kites and conducting surveys of the endangered species' nests, in a phone interview from his University of Florida office.
While the kites are becoming more rare in some traditional breeding areas—such as the Everglades Water Conservation Area 3-A, which spans from Tamiami Trail north to the sugar plantations of Palm Beach County—some of the birds are adapting to conditions in other locations further north where they historically have not breed. Also, officials with state and local agencies, such as the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), are cooperating and teaming up with biologists like Kitchens in an all-out effort to help the Snail Kites survive. For instance, FWC has hired a Snail Kite coordinator; the coordinator is a former student of Kitchens. Most importantly, many hope the proposed Everglades Restoration Plan will trigger a rebound in crucial breeding areas such as Water Conservation Area 3-A, an area where there have been only 10 new chicks born in the past four or five years, an alarming decrease from previous years.
The bad news, however, is bleak. The Snail Kite's population has been reduced in half twice since 2000, and the kites now number less than 1,000.
A signature species of the Everglades, the Snail Kite is found in the U.S. only in south Florida. It is highly dependent on certain water levels to maintain the wetland habitats for its primary food source, the apple snail. It uses its sharply-curved beak to remove snails from their shells. The main culprit of the Snail Kites decline over the past century is a vastly-altered Everglades and the resulting greatly reduced flow of water and quality of water.
"I think the restored system will be good for the kites," Kitchens said about proposed plans to try to return the Everglades to its natural flow, "if they are around. If things don't improve, the kites won't survive as a population through restoration."
Male Snail Kite
Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge 5/2/11
Photo by Roger Real Drouin
Trends compiled by University of Florida biologists using a vast array of data, such as kite lifespan, reproductive rate, and current Everglades water conditions, show a decline to a population of around 50 Snail Kites by 2045. The projection year is further reduced to 2030 if you account for conditions related to the anticipated impact of global warming, such as extreme flooding and drought. These "Population Viability" projections are based on 19 years worth of solid, objective data.
The projection is a realistic one.
"It's our best attempt at this," Kitchens said. "There is all kinds of uncertainty. But we have a good data base." The better the data set, the more realistic the projection.
I told one of my graduate professors, a birder since he moved to Florida about ten years ago, about my sightings at Loxahatchee. He looked up when I told him I'd seen an Everglades Snail Kite.
"I saw one there a few years ago. I heard they aren't doing too well."
"They've been having a tough time, and the drought isn't helping. They are such a cool bird."
"I just hope they are able to hang on," my professor said.
The indications right now look bad to Kitchens, who, along with graduate students, conducts surveys and banding trips in South-Florida locales from Water Conservation Area 3-A to the Lake Kissimmee region of Florida. The average life expectancy of Snail Kites is dropping swiftly. And fewer of the hawks are reproducing, if they even find a place to nest. Several adults have abandoned nests in extremely low water, because there is less access to a snail food supply, and predators such as raccoons can get to the nest easier.
In a strange twist, some kites have adapted to feeding in higher water levels, further north in the state, by relying on invasive Hydrilla plants. The birds will forage from Hydrilla for a non-native species of snails called the island apple snail. Some of Kitchens' and his colleagues' research has shown that the Snail Kite is now only thriving where both the non-native Hydrilla and island apple snail are present. As a result of this research, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials have eased up on their removal of Hydrilla from certain lakes and canals where a significant number of Snail Kites are present to give the endangered hawk a chance at survival. Hydrilla has its foes because it can limit boat navigation, block sunlight to other aquatic vegetation and deprive fish of oxygen.
In fact, the Snail Kite has become reliant on these two exotic species. This use of a plant and substitute snail that are not native to Florida is not considered a long-term sustainable mode of survival. A 2010 UF study suggests juvenile kites may actually starve while trying to subsist on the hard-to-handle invasive snails that are nearly twice as large as the native apple snails.
But the adapting behavior has surprised biologists, and it shows how the species is seeking different sources of food to survive.
An unknown future
According to the National Audubon Society, "the Snail Kite may… benefit from the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which has already facilitated the purchase of 207,000 acres, as well as attempts to create a more natural water cycle."
However, the current fiscal climate and political uncertainty threaten to reverse plans for Everglades' restoration work. There is always the possibility that only a portion of such large-scale governmental projects will ever be completed.
Even if restoration work comes to fruition, it may be too little too late.
Roger Real Drouin is an MFA student in creative writing/fiction at Florida Atlantic University. His short stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in The Litchfield Review, Northville Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Pindeldyboz, and Canary. His Web site is www.rogerdrouin.com, and he writes a blog at www.rogersoutdoorblog.com.