Dusky Seaside Sparrow a tale of rapid extinction

This is a photo of a Dusky Seaside Sparrow, the last of which which died on June 17, 1987. The bird’s extinction is one of the estimated 190 extinctions thought to have occured since Europeans reached North America.

This corner of the world in Sunday’s Daily Sentinel carried a story about wildlife photographer Noppodal Paothong and his 11-year journey photographing the seven threatened grouse species in the U.S.

The story mentions Paothong saying the disappearance and extinction of the Heath Hen in 1932 was the first recorded extinction of a species.

An alert reader reminded me Monday of Martha, the last of the once sky-filling Passenger Pigeons who died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

She may have been the first witnessed and recorded extinction, my reader surmised.

This, in turn, got me to digging through some old files for a grainy Associated Press wire-photo I’ve carried for 23 years of a small sparrow that went extinct in 1990.

The demise of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow was the first time I actually watched a species disappear.

The bird’s population dwindled from five males in 1981 (the last female was seen in 1975, a certain precursor of its extinction) to the last male dying in 1987. The extinction was official in 1990.

With maybe 2,000 breeding pairs in 1940, the dusky sparrow was never as numerous as the Passenger Pigeon, which was estimated at 3 to 5 billion in the U.S. when Europeans arrived in North America.

In the 19th Century, it was thought the Passenger Pigeon was second only to the Rocky Mountain locust in terms of its group or flock size.

According to several sources, since 1500 more than 190 species of birds have become extinct, with the rate increasing.

Hawaii, for example, has lost 30 percent of its known bird species while Guam, in the last 30 years, has lost 60 percent of its native bird species.

Of the approximately 10,000 species of birds, an estimated 1,200 are considered to be under threat of extinction.

You might notice a connection here: What’s remarkable about all these extinctions is the rapidity with which it happens.

The dusky sparrow started dying off with the advent of DDT in 1940. Habitat loss (mostly development of its salt marsh habitat) finished it off 50 years later.

Which brings us to the western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, a bird rapidly disappearing from the western landscape and one appearing (maybe) in a cottonwood stand near you.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October proposed listing the western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in the western U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

That includes all or part of 12 western states, including Colorado.

“Populations of western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, and their nesting habitat along rivers and streams, have been declining over the last few decades,” said Jennifer Norris, Field Supervisor for the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Service.

The yellow-billed is a Grail bird for many western birders, who look and look but with little results.

“There are less than 10 breeding pairs in Colorado and maybe 500 breeding pairs in the West,” said local birder John Toolen, an ecologist with the FWS in Grand Junction. “We’re talking about a lot fewer birds than the Gunnison sage grouse and over 12 states.”

The bird prefers habitat in the 100-year flood plain along major rivers, places where floods promote the growth of thick groves of cottonwood trees.

Like at the trees at the Ela Wildlife Sanctuary, which are the result of the 1984 flood. Such habitat is threatened by fires, development and the damming of rivers for flood control.

Sightings are rare, said Toolen.

“I finally saw one this year in the valley right at the confluence” of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s critical habitat proposal is expected in January, with comments about the proposed ESA listing accepted through Monday.

That doesn’t leave you much time, but when it comes to extinction, time always is short.


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