The Plight of the Endangered Snail Kite

The Florida Everglades offer a variety of habitats that are home to an amazing array of birds and wildlife. But, as is increasingly the case all over the world, man is encroaching on the delicate balance of these tropical wetlands with disastrous results. The latest casualty in the Florida Everglades is the Snail Kite which, according to the most recent count, is now considered to be critically endangered in this region.

A number of possible reasons has been cited for this dire situation, but the main factors appear to be extended periods of drought, together with an Everglades water management scheme that has been a subject of controversy for some time now. This has resulted in a loss of suitable breeding sites due to the dwindling of suitable food sources for these regal birds. The Snail Kite’s diet consists mainly of aquatic snails from the family Ampullariidae – commonly known as apple snails – which are deftly extracted from their hard, golf-ball sized shells by means of the bird’s specially adapted beak.

A small number of adult Snail Kites have been spotted in their historic nesting grounds of the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. However, the majority of the surviving birds have relocated to a chain of Central Florida lakes about 100 miles north, where they have been seen nesting at Lake Tohopekaliga in Florida’s Osceola County. The decline in the Snail Kite’s numbers is seen by many as a reflection of the ineffectiveness of federal wildlife protection and conservation measures in the Everglades.

The Miccosukee tribe has long argued against the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s implementation of a plan to protect the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow which is restricted to the Everglades. The plan, which involves closing floodgates along the Tamiami Trail in an effort to prevent flooding of the sparrows’ nesting area, causes water to back up and flood tree islands in tribal lands north of the trail, killing off the tiny eggs laid by apple snails on the stems of marsh plants, thereby breaking a link in the vital food chain of the Everglades which Snail Kites rely on. Joette Lorion, spokesperson for the Miccosukee tribe, draws attention to the fact that they Sable Seaside Sparrow is being saved at the expense of the Snail Kite.

Field supervisor at the Wildlife Service’s Vero Beach office, Paul Souza, acknowledges that the current situation is not ideal, but is confident that upcoming plans to improve water flow through Tamiami Trail in an Everglades restoration project will improve conditions for both the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow and the Snail Kite.