To the best of our knowledge, the Saltmarsh Sparrow will be one of the first species to go extinct due primarily to climate change. Will go extinct. In our lifetimes. Those words are intimidating. So stark. So final. And what do they really mean? Science can’t actually predict the future…can it? No, but with the right data and the right models, we can look at the past, and the present, and extend the patterns into the future to give a glimpse into what will *probably* occur. With the Saltmarsh Sparrow, the pattern is clear–and bleak: the species is already declining at 9% per year across its entire range (higher in some areas, like southern New England, where habitat has long been extensively degraded due to human development…). Sea level is already rising. Saltmarsh Sparrows nest on the ground, in tidal marshes, and almost all nests–even the successful ones–flood at least once. It won’t take much–a slightly higher sea level, a little more frequent storm surges–before nests fail more often than they succeed. Reproduction slows to a trickle. The adults that are left can’t find each other to reproduce. The demise of a species–in the blink of a geologic eye. What about captive breeding? What about zoos? What about bold efforts like floating islands and facilitated marsh migration inland? Ok. Maybe. Let’s even say all those things happen, and succeed. The Saltmarsh Sparrow’s habitat (tidal marshes) is still at risk. And there is a big difference between relic individuals and a viable species. Saltmarsh Sparrows are, quite frankly, doomed.
Or, be the cynic. So what? Will the world at large really notice if the Saltmarsh Sparrow disappears for good? Fine–probably not. But the world will lose a species. One of the few in the world that has adapted to make its home exclusively in soggy, salty, ephemeral coastal marshes. The Saltmarsh Sparrow (which lives only in the United States–breeding from Maine to Virginia, and wintering from Virginia to Florida) is also one of the only bird species in the world with its breeding system: while most songbirds pair up, claim and defend a territory, and both males and females take care of the offspring, in Saltmarsh Sparrows, males and females only interact to copulate. There are no territories. Males rarely sing. Females do all of the offspring care, from building nests and laying eggs, to incubating eggs and chicks, to finding all food for herself and her young, entirely alone–the males don’t even know where the nests are and pay no attention to juveniles. They are the most promiscuous bird species on record–it is common in a typical nest of four eggs, for each egg to have been fertilized from a different father. This highly unusual way of making a life is going to disappear.
What does the probable extinction of this species mean to me? It’s like having a friend with a terminal illness. The Saltmarsh Sparrow was the focal species of my dissertation. That means I spent 6 years of my life thinking about these birds every single day. Reading every paper that had ever been published about them (ok, not possible for many species, but it is–and especially was–for this one!). Writing about them. Talking about them. And, genuinely getting to know them. My first day catching Saltmarsh Sparrows was in June, 2010, in Connecticut. I was out there in Summer 2011, winter 2011-2012, spring-summer-fall 2012, winter 2012-2013, spring-summer-fall 2013, and winter 2013-2014. That’s four summers, and three spring/falls/winters of getting up before dawn, hiking out into the marsh, setting up nets, and catching sparrows.
When you spend that much time with a single species, you start to know them. Saltmarsh Sparrows transform from an nondescript LBB (little brown bird) into a beautifully nuanced work of art when you hold them up close. You learn the way their feathers are bright, crisp, and iridescent when freshly grown, but then dull, frayed, and broken by the end of the breeding season. The way a female feels slightly smaller and lighter in the hand than a male does. The way juveniles are easy to catch, and have soft, fluffy feathers. The way a female flushes suddenly from her nest as you approach it–and the way to keep that precise spot of green in your sight as you walk toward it, and find the nest. The way the birds walk slowly along the ground, on top of or underneath the vegetation, as you walk behind, coaxing them close to the net. The way they sit still while you photograph them for plumage studies–so much calmer than a chickadee, or a waxwing, that never stops moving.
I’m utterly and incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to get to know this species so intimately. The Saltmarsh Sparrow is a species that many birders have never seen (for good reason–they’re easy to find, but you really have to get into a marsh to find them), that most people have never even heard of, and I got to spend countless hours watching them and handling them. It is hard not to get into a routine and take things for granted once they have reached a status of normalcy, but I tried to not let that happen. Each sparrow that I caught and banded was a unique individual. A slightly different pattern in plumage pigmentation and wear. A life. A member of a species that has a very limited future. I’m honored to have shared a piece of my life with theirs.