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The “Goldilocks” Sparrow That’s Shielding the Everglades

How did the little-known Cape Sable seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis), a somewhat drab bird found in the wild only at the southern tip of the Everglades National Park, become the pivot in a raging debate about the role of Endangered species in the protection of wild land?

“The Cape Sable seaside sparrow isn’t nicknamed the ‘Goldilocks bird’ for nothing,” says the Center for Biological Diversity on a website about the species. “In order for this little sparrow to survive, its habitat conditions have to be just right.” That means the sparrow’s lifecycle is intimately tied to fires and water flows in the Everglades, millennia-old cycles that have been severely disrupted by the growing pressure of human population in Florida.

The settlement of millions of people, the intensity of plantations for thirsty crops like sugar, and changes to the climate caused in part by industrial activities have created a need to manage the storage and allocation of water, and with that has come the disruption to the natural cycles of fire and flood to which the Cape Sable seaside sparrow has adapted. The Center for Biological Diversity has taken up the cause of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow as part of its mission “to work through science, law and creative media to secure a future for all species, great or small, hovering on the brink of extinction.” (2015 press release: Lawsuit Launched to Protect Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow)

With possibly only as few as 2,500 Cape Sable seaside sparrows left in half a dozen locations in the Everglades, the bird is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes and heavy flooding (or drought). That makes water management in the Everglades very tricky (Wet South Florida winter puts rare Everglades sparrow in danger). And it can annoy conservationists and developers alike (Cape Sable Sparrow may be headed back to court and (Saving the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow and Restoring Everglades Balance Is Possible After All).

A federally Endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow at Everglades National Park, Florida. The photograph is one of thousands of portraits made by photographer Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark, an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity—inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations.
A federally Endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow at Everglades National Park, Florida. The photograph is one of thousands of portraits made by photographer Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark, an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity—inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations. Click on the image above to get more information.

The Cape Sable seaside sparrow was “discovered” only a century ago (1918), in the salt marshes of Cape Sable, the south-eastern tip of the Everglades. It was among the first species to be listed when the Endangered Species Act took effect in 1973. That gave them official protection against anyone that would harm them or their habitat.

The listing has been an ongoing point of frustration and even anger on the part of farmers, anglers, industry and developers, who argue that their water needs (storage and release) should take priority over a few birds no one knows or cares about. But conservationists argue that the sparrow is a keystone species that protects the entire Everglades ecosystem. Protect the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and you protect a vast habitat teeming with thousands of other species.

Scientists want to work with federal and state agencies to devise solutions that work for both civilization and nature. The long-term survival of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow in the Everglades would be evidence that such a compromise is possible.

“My colleagues and I feel very strongly that an organization like the Army Corps ought not to be driving a species to extinction in the middle of one of our national parks,” says Stuart Pimm of Duke University, and a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what can be done to prevent them (Environmentalists Say too Much Water in Everglades National Park Jeopardizes Endangered Sparrow). Pimm is a former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration and a current member of the Society’s Big Cats Initiative. He has long studied and advocated for the Cape Sable seaside sparrow.

The National Geographic Photo Ark is a multi-year project to photograph all species in captivity. The Cape Sable seaside sparrow is one of them. To learn more about the Photo Ark, visit natgeophotoark.org,

Follow the Photo Ark photographer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, and add your voice using #SaveTogether.