The Imperiled Saltmarsh Sparrow is Saved

This sweet-voiced, promiscuous bird makes a living in tidal swamps.

The Imperiled Saltmarsh Sparrow is Saved

This sweet-voiced, promiscuous bird makes a living in tidal swamps. Nesting on ground that floods at the peak of high tide every month is risky even in the best of circumstances. The tiny saltmarsh sparrow is now in serious trouble due to storm surges and water pollution, as well as land development and global warming.

According to Wenley Ferguson, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit Save the Bay, the habitat of the bird is shrinking along its breeding range from midcoast Maine and Virginia. In the past, sea level rises could be offset by saltmarshes expansion. However, climate change has caused sea level rises that inundate marshlands more quickly than they are expanding. Saltmarsh sparrow numbers have declined by 9 percent each year since 2010, when they were just 50,000. Experts predict that the species will disappear by 2050 at this rate.

Conservationists are now in a hurry to help. Ferguson and volunteers have made shallow ditches in saltmarshes for water drainage. The displaced soil has been turned into mounds that attract sparrows to higher ground. Others have placed coconut coir logs next to marsh boundaries or widened tidal channels in an effort to trap sediment.

The wetlands must not disappear completely, so there is reason to believe that the frisky saltmarsh sparrow will find a way. One of its peculiarities is the fact that males and women can breed with multiple partners. Promiscuity could be an adaptation to the risk of a nest full eggs being washed away by a peak tide. Mating opportunistically allows adults to start over immediately before a breeding season ends. Kate Ruskin (University of Maine researcher and member of Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program, SHARP) says that there is a lot of 'free love' in the marsh. It's an interesting story about ecology and evolution, as well as how creatures adapt to their habitats.

This article is taken from Smithsonian magazine's June issue.

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