Of a Fire on the Marsh

The last days of the dusky seaside sparrow, a species that went extinct when it lost out to the moon race

Dusky seaside sparrow (right) and a cross (50 percent dusky, 50 percent Scott’s seaside sparrow) at the dusky aviary in Gainesville, Florida (Mike Delany)
Dusky seaside sparrow (right) and a cross (50 percent dusky, 50 percent Scott’s seaside sparrow) at the dusky aviary in Gainesville, Florida (Mike Delany)

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. —Hamlet

In all my life, it might be the thing I’ve looked for hardest, apart from unrelenting love. A bird: not big or bright, no bird of paradise, no pheasant of Tibet. Instead, a sparrow, a meager lump not quite come into focus in a misty lens. I saw it only once, half a lifetime ago. It’s haunted me ever since, hag of my heart.

April 15, 1980

By some measures the morning is voluptuous. Apocalypses are first of all voluptuous, no end of scenic calamities: flesh and muck, fire and monsters. Nothing burns now, but breezes sweep the salt marsh, sprites forming in swirls. Ghosts come and go in a weave of cordgrass.

Salt marsh covers the St. Johns River valley in Florida, not that any valley is evident. All’s level, to look at it. At sunrise we start out on foot: Mike Delany, who’s mapped out the morning’s search, the first of many; Beau Sauselein, who works every day in the marsh, worrying about sparrows; myself bobbling a limp notebook.

The marsh stretches out of sight, crossed by a misty strip of palms and a power line. We move along a dike, sorting out a babel of birdsong: the melody of the meadowlark, the maracas of the red-winged blackbird, the double-dactyl line of the yellowthroat. Electric, but all the wrong birds. A meadowlark swoops past, sunlight on its lemon breast. Delany rocks back like an onlooker at a rocket launch.

“Thank God,” he says, “we’re not losing that one.”

There it is—the slip, from a sparrow man, that a sparrow wasn’t the worst thing to lose. I might have said it myself, without thinking, if I’d thought of it.

We slide down off the dike and push through the cordgrass—elastic, knee-deep clumps that push right back. I step on a clump, and deftly it dumps me in the mud, where I lie a long moment looking at the sky. The plan is to walk abreast, 25 meters apart, stopping often for Delany with a tape player to broadcast a birdsong, like the redwing’s but less forceful. To my ear (in birds we hear what we want to hear) it’s please see meeeee. “They answer after four or five tries,” says Sauselein, a red dragonfly looping around him, “or not at all.”

Who has heard the dusky seaside sparrow, or even heard of  it? I’ve never caught a note or glimpse of it myself, and 1980 may be too late. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service news release cites the dusky as perhaps the most endangered species in America. No matter: the media dilate on condors and crocodiles. Sparrows lack resonance. We think of that denizen of eaves and downspouts, the house sparrow, gracing sidewalk cafés with cloacal graffiti. The dusky, by contrast, sticks to the marshes within a few miles of Titusville, Florida. In the scant existing photos, it’s a natty creature, dark on top, chocolate to black, with breast streaks of those same shades on white. Ahead of the eye is a bright wedge of saffron. Elegant. Still, a sparrow.

On this Tax Day, we’re on the St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge, acquired for the dusky at a cost of $2.6 million. A fortune for a sparrow, recalling Richard III’s kingdom for a horse, but was it enough? This also is the first day of a two-month search for the dusky, whose entire population might fit in your pocket. Moreover, no female has been seen in five years—so the search could yield the sort of Sophoclean knowledge we’d rather not know. The dusky seaside sparrow could be the first U.S. bird to go extinct since Richard Nixon signed conservation’s Magna Carta, the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

“Here’s where they were last year,” says Sauselein, halting at a pond edged by rushes. Last spring four males staked out territories nearby, but no female ever joined them. Now, not even males are evident—no answer to Delany’s plaintive tape. “This area feels like it’s a little thick,” says Delany. Sauselein allows that it’s due for a burn.

Cordgrass can grow too dense for duskies to nest in it. Nature’s fix, lightning fire, is too hit-and-miss if habitat is scarce. The remedy is a regime of controlled burns: it’s theory and practice, embodied by the two men with me today. Delany wrote his master’s thesis on another type of seaside sparrow, and now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has enlisted him to work on the dusky. He looks the part of a rescuer—sandy hair and mustache, hair longish but neat, a military effect. Sauselein, a biological technician for the Fish and Wildlife Service, looks equally rough and ready, his mustache a handlebar. Delany knows habitat; Sauselein knows axes, shovels, and heavy equipment. Between them, the long shot at saving the dusky takes parable form.

As in most cases of species decline, the cause is loss of habitat. On the St. Johns refuge, mere scraps of salt marsh remain, while almost none is left on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge a few miles to the east, where the dusky once abounded. In two decades, the bird has become all but homeless.

If you believed in predestination, or in its rationalist equivalent, determinism, you could argue that the dusky was doomed on September 12, 1962. President Kennedy declared on that day, “[W]e choose to go to the moon. … We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” His premise was the inexorability of human progress, progress dependent on the destined apportionment of global power: “Only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”

The Kennedy Space Center, much of it, would be built on Merritt Island. Before NASA, the island was largely pristine—leggy shorebirds in tidal lagoons, crabs, cottonmouths, mosquitoes by the billions. Dusky seaside sparrows happily inhabited the salt marsh fringing the island. Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds gave directions to the dusky more precise and promissory than any others in the book: “Salt marshes around Merritt Island in vicinity of Titusville, Florida. You will find it across the bridge.” NASA acquired 140,000 acres on the island, with the agreement that land not needed for aerospace work would be managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Thus was born the Merritt Island refuge, which served NASA as a buffer, wildlife posing no threat to its pads and gantries. For the dusky, it should have been a boon.

Those billions of mosquitoes, alas, pestered workers at the Space Center and their families in the boomtown of Titusville across the Indian River. Local authorities had sprayed DDT for years, but its toxicity to other species, the dusky among them, raised concerns. A safer way, it seemed, was to dike and flood the marshes, making them too deep for mosquitoes to breed. The Fish and Wildlife Service obliged—the new refuge becoming in effect the mosquito-control annex of NASA.

For the dusky, it was a disaster. The flooding killed the cordgrass, and an invasion of brush brought perching birds, grackles and crows, which preyed on dusky eggs and young. Birders were mostly content, since the diked impoundments held a host of flamboyant waterbirds. Sportsmen were permitted to hunt ducks; Brian Sharp, a biologist who had written his master’s thesis on the dusky, charged the refuge managers with running a “duck club.” Merritt Island had once been home to thousands of duskies; by 1977 only two pairs were left.

Today, three years later, there are none.

By 8 A.M. the wind on the St. Johns picks up, and it’s hard now to hear birds. We swing around, Delany rolling the tape one last time. What plays is not the dusky song but a strange guttural rasp, then a rhythmic swoosh-swoosh wafting across the windswept marsh. Glances pass around. Delany clicks it off. Somehow the record button was bumped, wiping out the dusky song and replacing it with Delany clearing his throat, then the whisking of pants in cordgrass. No harm: the dusky was a dub. Good for an edgy laugh—as if we’ve been given a sign.

Evening, the same day. Citrus sun, loaves of luminous cloud. A mourning dove waddles along the dike ahead of us, Chaplinesque, swiveling its head to keep an eye on us. We cut through a fringe of cattails and into the cordgrass, passing one of the salt pans, bare mud patches, that pock the marsh. We walk a Pleistocene seabed: without its saline deposits, the waters so far inland would be too fresh for cordgrass.

It was here on the St. Johns, not on Merritt Island, that the dusky was discovered. In 1872 a roving naturalist from Massachusetts, Charles J. Maynard, flushed one a few miles north of our present location. The bird popped up, “hovering a moment, uttering a feeble sputtering song, then dropped down and disappeared.” At once he recognized it as something new, dubbing it the “black and white shore finch.”

Duskies have given up on the site where Maynard got lucky, the habitat long gone. They need large swaths of cordgrass, not too thick, without brush. Perhaps—there was a debate on this—they want an unbroken horizon: no buildings, embankments, or woods. Unlike most sparrows, they don’t migrate. An individual dusky seems to nest, rest, and feed—on seeds, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, sometimes a tiny crab—within a radius of only a few hundred yards, seldom more.

The nest, woven of grass stems, floats in cordgrass a foot or two off the mud, not far removed from predatory snakes, rats, herons, raccoons, and even ravenous ants. The female dusky, when leaving to feed, drops to the ground and slips off on foot before flying, not giving away the location of the nest. The clutch consists of three or four eggs; incubation takes about a dozen days. Eight days after hatching, the young hop out of the nest, not yet airworthy, and dodder along the floor of the cordgrass forest, peeping for the parents to feed them.

That, at least, is how it was when duskies still nested and study was still possible. In truth we know less about the dusky seaside sparrow than we know now about the moon. And wasn’t it knowledge we were after in space, according to President Kennedy? Knowledge and power, which, in his pitch, came to the same thing. If power qua power was the object, however obliquely, could the space program be guiltless? Thus ruminated Norman Mailer, in his 1970 book, Of a Fire on the Moon. When Wernher von Braun, on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, announced that “I think it is equal in importance to that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling up on the land,” Mailer, aghast if only for effect, observed that von Braun had “passed without pause over the birth and death of Christ.” Who, it happens, is on record as having his eye on the sparrow. “It was a world half convinced of the future death of our species,” wrote Mailer, “yet half aroused by the apocalyptic notion that an exceptional future still lay before us.” Powering our way in the world, post-lunar landing, we forget what we never really knew: a sparrow with its lowly phylogeny, the pennant of no power.

Not to mention the money. Space cash poured from Washington into Florida, spreading from Titusville in concentric circles. Here we stand in the marsh, sun gone down, 15 miles from NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building, the largest single-story building on earth, as massive and fabulous as Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. In time, like a racetrack tout at Hialeah, I too will cash in, writing a promotional video for visitors to the Kennedy Space Center, stretching faint evidence of life on Mars into virtual certainty of it—helping NASA beat a horse that never seems to die.

We plod back on the dike. Crickets fiddle. New moon tonight, no light.

April 16, 1980

Chilly, 45 degrees at sunrise. Delany and Sauselein are back, with Bill Leenhouts and Herb Kale. Leenhouts, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist on the St. Johns and Merritt Island refuges, sports a yellow hardhat with a big, businesslike speaker fastened to the front. “First time I ever went duskyin’ and had to wear a jacket,” he notes.

Kale, an ornithologist with the Florida Audubon Society, carries under his ball cap a vast knowledge of the state’s avifauna, especially marsh birds. He has an impish look, leftover ’70s sideburns curling out of the cap, yet gives the parallel impression of a cryptic saint on a crag of cloud. He’s the dusky’s leading advocate, pleading, provoking, calling meetings, firing off letters and articles. “We figured we’d lose them on Merritt Island,” he laments as we walk, “but thought we had plenty on the St. Johns, so we could restock when the habitat was restored.” Not many years ago, there was nothing whimsical in the idea of lowering a few impoundments on Merritt Island and bringing back duskies from the St. Johns. But now—the nub of Kale’s lament—the St. Johns itself is all but depleted, and that modest proposal seems a flight of Victorian science fiction.

A swamp sparrow jumps up, and for a blink it’s a dusky, my first at last. Birding, like a spy movie, is defined by mistaken identities. Kale grins.

Again we’re on the St. Johns refuge, but this time on a different tract: an isolated wedge of marsh between the forks of a highway called the Beeline, its steady surf of traffic not quite near enough to drown out birds. The expressway was built, dusky be damned, to hook up the Space Center with Walt Disney World and the rest of Orlando tourism 50 miles west of here. To sweeten the pot, the state road department also cited national security as a benefit: asked if he feels safer as a consequence, Kale lowers his binoculars and rolls his eyes.

Leenhouts, a big man, the tallest marshland feature for miles around, transmits from his impressive headgear the song that’s come to seem so lonesome. A wood stork glides by, silent. Far off, the chipper whistle of a bobwhite. Pour of traffic.

The stage for announcing plans for the Beeline forks was, ironically, a 1969 dusky conference that Kale helped to organize. Held in Titusville, it drew noted ornithologists and representatives of government agencies and conservation groups. The disclosure that an expressway would slice through the heart of dusky habitat was, as one participant put it, a “stunner.” Kale proposed a single route bypassing the duskies, but the road department insisted that forks were needed, to Titusville and the Space Center, because there would be no interchange with I-95. This would prove false; interchanges sprang up on both forks. The best Kale could do was hold up construction two years for water-flow studies.

Highway aside, the conference had positive outcomes. The Fish and Wildlife Service was prodded to assign an endangered-species biologist to the Merritt Island refuge, to appoint a recovery team to make recommendations on saving the dusky, and to acquire land for a refuge in the St. Johns marshes. Unlike Merritt Island, the new refuge would be created expressly for protection of the dusky—and yet, when established in 1971, the St. Johns refuge was not given its own headquarters and staff but instead was managed from the Merritt Island refuge, where the focus was still on mosquitoes, waterfowl, and NASA.

We come to a squarish, man-made pond. A green-backed heron clatters out from the cattails on its margin. The road department promised not to excavate fill for the highway here, where the last sizable colony of duskies was clinging on, but the builders gouged out a 10-acre borrow pit, now this pond. “They went through the very place the birds were,” sighs Kale.

Leenhouts spots a pygmy rattlesnake soaking up sunshine. I’m no fan of venomous snakes, but this one looks nicer than most—a foot and a half long, speckled with orange. Leenhouts says now he’ll spook at every cow patty—cattle having recently grazed here.

We reach the end of the refuge property: steel posts, a new wire fence. “If there were any birds here,” says Kale with a shrug, “they’d be singing.”

None, was he sure?

“No place where we walked.”

He gazes across the wedge of marsh to the highway. We had walked it all.

Evening. Sun washed out, as if weary from firing up the Florida economy for another day. Back on the tract we walked yesterday, known as the Hacienda. Dead brush mars the sweep of marsh like snarls of wire. A redwing swerves past, routing a swamp sparrow. Again we play the dusky’s wan song.

After it was virgin marsh but before it was refuge, all this was cattle ranch. Despite grazing and drainage ditches, the cordgrass held on, ranchers setting fires to control brush and promote pasturage. In theory, these fires could benefit the dusky by thinning the cordgrass, but typically they were set in winter, the driest, windiest season, and burned so fast that birds couldn’t always fly to safety.

The potential value of the refuge lay not simply in fencing it off but in actively managing for the dusky: plugging ditches, clearing brush, cutting fire lanes so that wildfire and prescribed burns could be contained. It’s tempting to think that nature, left to itself, will revert to a primal state, and that to intervene wipes out the wildness of things. Aldo Leopold, the ecologist known for his classic wilderness essays in A Sand County Almanac, wrote in his treatise Game Management that such thinking “shows good taste but poor insight. Every head of wild life still alive in this country is already artificialized, in that its existence is conditioned by economic forces.”

The St. Johns refuge was managed on minimalist lines, “willy-nilly,” as Kale had put it in a letter. The Fish and Wildlife Service cited a shortage of funds but clearly preferred to spend money elsewhere on more glamorous species. Brush crept in, and a drainage ditch was left unplugged for 10 years, evidently because of local political finagling. Four years passed before the Merritt Island manager sent a request to the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Atlanta for a marsh buggy, a piece of heavy equipment for constructing fire lanes. The buggy arrived 15 months later; by then it was too late.

A spring survey in 1972 had counted 110 male duskies, but wildfires the next winter burned 1,700 acres, and the count fell to 54. After two fires in 1974, it dropped to 37. Remarkably, the next winter brought no fires, and the number rose to 47—the last time the dusky would increase.

These surveys were carried out by biologist Jim Baker, who had also done an
in-depth study of the dusky’s ecology. Though not working full time on the bird, he was the only expert on the dusky assigned to the staff of either refuge. When the dusky recovery team was appointed in 1975—three members, including Kale and a state official—Baker was designated team leader. But soon after, as Baker noted in a chronology he kept, he was “transferred to Washington—No replacement for St. Johns was sought out.” A few months later came another worrisome entry: “Sauselein appointment ran out—no personnel assigned to St. Johns NWR.”

The marsh buggy had not yet arrived. Sauselein, the man who would operate it, would later be rehired but for now was gone. On December 28, a rancher set a fire on his land near the St. Johns refuge. That night, flames driven by strong north winds swept the refuge. All the prime dusky habitat on the Hacienda tract, 2,100 acres, was incinerated. By spring only 11 duskies survived on the tract. Most of the missing birds were surely burned alive, so fast had the fire traveled. Whatever chance of survival the dusky had before that windy night in winter—a sparrow’s chance in hell—was all but wiped out.

The Being, that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For them the quiet creatures whom he loves.

Thus wrote William Wordsworth on divine sympathy for “the meanest thing that feels.” A sparrow, maybe.

Fading, the sun hunkers down on the marsh. Again no dusky. “They could have gone somewhere else,” Kale says, “to search for mates.” An idea with its romantic tinge, like the twilight to come.

April 22, 1980

The search continues, in the midst of which, on this Earth Day, comes a sad discovery.

It’s been some comfort to know that besides any birds we might find in the wild, three survive in captivity. All males, they were captured a few months ago on a ranch near the St. Johns refuge, with the aim of protecting them from wildfire and with the gauzier hope of breeding them in captivity if the search should turn up a female. But these birds are getting old, and now one is found dead.

Captive breeding, if it comes about, is the state’s project. Will Post, an ornithologist who’s worked with other seaside sparrows, has been signed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to develop captive-breeding methodologies with a dusky relative, the Scott’s seaside sparrow. In the natural habitat of the Scott’s on the Florida Gulf Coast, Post is studying reproductive behavior and experimenting with devices for safeguarding nests from predators. Already he has bred and raised Scott’s in aviaries he has designed, all but proving that it’s also doable with the dusky.

If no female turns up, a fallback is possible: crossbreeding the dusky males with Scott’s females. The crossbred female offspring would be crossed again with male duskies—producing by the sixth generation birds 98.4 percent dusky. This stratagem would keep the dusky genetic material alive, not only preserving diversity among seaside sparrows but also producing virtual duskies for restocking the refuges.

Already the concept has been demonstrated in Post’s work, accidentally or not. A dusky and a female Scott’s, finding themselves in the same aviary, have produced several young; these have proven fertile. But the Fish and Wildlife Service must approve any crossbreeding plan, and approval is in doubt. The death in the aviary doesn’t help. A third of the captive gene pool is lost.

May 8, 1980

In his Ornithological Biography, John James Audubon notes that he shot several seaside sparrows, then “had them made into a pie, which, however, could not be eaten, on account of its fishy savour.” Pie is not in prospect, or sparrows on a spit, but we do feel the spirit of the hunt. Seven of us, now including biologist Jim Baker, are no less intent on finding a dusky than were our Neanderthal congeners on tracking down a woolly mammoth.

On a tract of private ranchland near the refuge, it’s a foggy morning, sparkling with tiny wet orbs on spider webs and on the rococo curls of Kale’s sideburns. We set out single file on a narrow cow path, Kale bringing up the rear; jests drift back about his staying dry thanks to the rest of us having already soaked up all the dew.

From a puddly stretch, a rail flutters up, a sora, brown with gray wings. Fewer birds of any kind are singing now than back in April. We fan out, Leenhouts playing his dusky recording. From far off, the familiar song wafts back to us—an echo, it seems. Then quickly comes a second echo, distant yet distinct, off to the side. We freeze. Not echoes, but two birds a hundred yards apart, singing back and forth.

Delany starts toward the nearer bird, and I follow along on his flank. The sun cutting the fog makes the marsh a hall of mirrors. I push ahead in muddled light and shadow, nearly landing on a knot of cordgrass with a cottonmouth coiled on top, thick as a Bundt cake. I back off and reroute. Halfway to the birds everybody stops, binoculars up.

The light-shot mist lays its patina on the first bird I find in the glasses. Toes on grass tips, ebony head and back, chocolate dribble along sides. Less real than ethereal, a poem kit with precut pieces.

The two birds sing, antiphonally, for an hour, an hour and a half. Leenhouts wipes his binoculars on my shirttail. We keep an eye out for any sign of a female, any tip-off in the operatics of the males.

The nearer bird’s song—the bird I’ve come to think of as ours—seems less spirited. Or maybe I’m only reading my own mood, melancholic. Then the song of the farther bird goes from three notes ( please see meeeee) to two, the second note quite buzzy, and suddenly it swoops across the marsh and alights on a grass tip a few yards from our bird, which plummets out of sight in the roots. The invader dives down after it, chittering darkly, the fuss going on five minutes.

Accounts come due, numeric and narrative. Though we don’t yet know it, these are the last two duskies still living in the company of their kind. Two others will be found on the refuge, not close together. That’s the tally for the two-month search: four males. Given this result, 21 conferees will gather in Titusville for the last big meeting on the dusky and counsel that the state proceed with crossbreeding. Soon afterward, three of the birds found in the search (the fourth vanishing, never seen again) will be netted for the aviaries, bringing the total there to five. Though Fish and Wildlife Service personnel at the meeting join the call for crossbreeding, ultimately the agency will deny permission, contending that the Endangered Species Act does not protect “contaminated” forms. It will seek a legal opinion to that effect, counter to an existing opinion under which it has done work on such dubious adulterated taxa as the red wolf and peregrine falcon. Kale, fed up with artifice, will confide, “I almost wish I could resign from the recovery team. I don’t want to be part of the extinction of a species.”

Already the two singing males we’ve found are effectively extinct. The feistier bird flies back to its bailiwick, but the shy one is slow to reappear, so Delany and I seize the moment to move closer. A burst of his tape summons it up from the muck basement of the marsh—sputtering at us, spitting quick clicking notes, too close for my binoculars to focus. It rocks atop the grass and sings, the pink lining of its jaw translucent in the sunlight, then lifts a cocked wing to warn us off. The most elusive bird ever. I must be in love.

February 13, 2017

Flying by motorcycle through horse farm country: whirl of thoroughbreds, white fences. Fifty miles to Gainesville and the collections of the Florida Museum of Natural History, housed in a sort of bunker sunken to its eyebrows in the Florida soil. Here, in a fluorescent-lit room, in a cabinet, in a drawer, in a tray in that drawer, are filed 18 skins of the dusky seaside sparrow, tags on toes.

But for missing eyes, the cotton-stuffed skins could almost be taken for living birds. The oldest, collected on Merritt Island in 1928, is in nearly mint condition. A kiss from a fairy princess could lift the little flock through a skylight. Even so, as empiricists point out, dead’s dead.

Aside from its repository role, the museum had sought an active part in saving the dusky. In 1981 an ornithologist on its staff, John Hardy, joined Kale and Post in proposing a crossbreeding project sponsored by the museum. The Fish and Wildlife Service, rejecting the earlier call for crossbreeding, had stressed that no more federal money would be spent on duskies; the museum plan thus would rely on private funding. Environmental groups urged approval, as did the prominent ornithologist S. Dillon Ripley, director of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Fish and Wildlife Service nursed a different idea: preserve sperm from the captive males and find a dusky female. It conceded that two years would be needed to test methodologies of sperm preservation and artificial insemination; and in the field, few took seriously the idea that a female still existed. For all that, the agency not only vetoed the museum plan but pulled the duskies from the state aviaries and parked them in a teaching zoo. The newsletter of the Florida Audubon Society and Florida Ornithological Society mordantly summed the matter up: “It is a bit ironic that the coup de grâce to the Dusky Seaside Sparrow population has now been delivered by the very federal agency charged with the job of preventing it from going extinct.”

Also in the museum is a wooden box, a kind of jewelry case, once Kale’s. In it repose the skins of four dusky-Scott’s crosses, arranged in order of dusky dominance. The two darkest, 75 and 87.5 percent dusky, are doppelgängers of pure-bred duskies: it’s bittersweet to imagine the marshes of the St. Johns valley and Merritt Island buoyant with such birds, dusky to the nth degree if not the last drop.

It might have happened, even near the end. In 1982 the new acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote to the Florida Audubon Society suggesting that it look into conducting a crossbreeding project. Two provisos: no federal money could be used, and no crossbred duskies could be released on the refuges. Kale lost no time lining up funds from Walt Disney World and a site for the work in aviaries to be built on the park’s Discovery Island.

Or perhaps, by then, it was fantasy. One dusky had died at the teaching zoo (and was made into a mount for display at the Merritt Island refuge, where rats would destroy it), leaving only four survivors. Kale never gave up, but two breeding seasons had been lost since the last birds were captured, and now many of the eggs they produced failed to hatch. A handful of crossbred offspring were fledged, while one by one the geriatric parents died off. In 1986 the last dusky produced three clutches, all infertile. Finally, on June 17, 1987, a keeper found it on the floor, lifeless.

The dusky became the first bird, and the first warm-blooded creature of any kind, to go extinct in the United States after the birth of the law intended to prevent such dead ends. Because nearly all of its habitat had been on federal refuges, the problem of rescue was circumscribed—not like the case of the northern spotted owl, say, with its occupation of old-growth forest scattered across several states. Saving the dusky should have been possible.

After the disastrous fire in December 1975, Kale wrote to Nathaniel P. Reed, the assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, asserting that the “failure to take the proper and timely steps to prevent this predictable event is an obvious demonstration of the low priority that was assigned to this endangered population.” Kale protested the move of biologist Jim Baker to Washington—to which Reed replied that “our present administrative ceiling restrictions have forced the transfer of Dr. Baker to a higher priority need.”

There was no dispute, then, that priorities lay elsewhere. Every species has a price: a sparrow is priced for clearance. Not even Audubon, the journal of the National Audubon Society, ran a death notice.

Kale called the dusky a “bird without a constituency.” The legions of bird-listers who once came looking for duskies “across the bridge” had thinned after 1973, when the American Ornithologists’ Union, shifting philosophically from “splitting” taxa to “lumping,” voted to classify the dusky no longer as a species but as a subspecies of the seaside sparrow. Ammodramus nigrescens became Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens. After its extinction, a study at the University of Georgia found the dusky genetically inseparable from most other seaside sparrows—a paradox, since duskies were far darker, and even sang a different song.

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Wordsworth once more. And it hurts the heart, in the museum, to see the jar labeled Last One, to lift it like a sacrifice. In glaucous light the final bird glows blue-black; in a formalin sky it flies away nowhere, fluffed out. Thirty years since it died, an anniversary of sorts. The species, or subspecies, may have spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving, isolated from other seasides. Making the acquaintance of our own kind, it lasted a mere century more.

But another bird, also in a jar: one of the two singers we saw that morning in May on the ranch, where it was netted a few weeks later. Here it is in bluish haze, sodden as the fat cigars men chewed in restaurants when I was a boy. We meet again.

What’s left to look at? Without the dusky, its salt marshes seem ruins. Today the St. Johns refuge is given over to brush and blackbirds. Not long ago on the Merritt Island refuge, one of Elon Musk’s rockets set off a wildfire. Nor on those sacred sites is there a fit memorial. Let us put one up: Herbert W. Kale II, d. 1995 in his sleep, after a day studying birds in a Florida marsh. James L. Baker, d. 1989 of a heart attack, cross-country skiing in Alaska. Beau W. Sauselein, d. 1981 of burns suffered while fighting a wildfire on Merritt Island.

Despite the cold assurances of our age, who can say for sure where the dusky at last has landed? Perhaps in what Wallace Stevens called the “trash can at the end of the world.” Perhaps elsewhere, as in the vision of the psalmist: “You save humankind and animals alike, O Lord.” I lean toward the latter prospect, having come this far in the search and seeing, with Hamlet, a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. In sore fact, the dusky fell many times: the last female, the last male, the last crossbred bird carrying its cast-aside genes. And now, writing this, I’ve killed it again.

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Parker Bauerhas written a column about the environment for The Columbus Dispatch, documentaries for National Geographic, and essays for The Weekly Standard and Sewanee Theological Review.


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