Perils still plague Everglade snail kite

The finicky hawk struggles in Florida


Look quickly at this slide show of the Everglade snail kite. Some day, the bird of prey may vanish from South and Central Florida. It has been tagged as endangered for nearly half a century, and its low numbers have been sagging. These photos, taken at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton Beach, show the slow-flying hawk screeching, soaring and preening. The snail kite has a distinctive cackle that, during courtship, sounds something like a bleating sheep. Its chief food is the apple snail, a freshwater mollusk that also is jeopardized by pesticides widely used in farming. The finicky bird’s slender, hooked bill lets it easily pluck the snail from its shell, which it snares with its claws.

 

A long-running drought in the Everglades has worked against the birds. Man also is an enemy of the Everglade snail kite, which can look independently out of each eye to see sideways. That’s fine for spotting food, but it isn’t a fail-safe against farmers who hunt them as pests and developers who drain marshes where they nest.

 

The system of pumps and canals that has upset the natural flow of water in the Everglades for decades has not been good for the snail kite either. There have been instances of snail kites abandoning their young on Lake Okeechobee after lake water has been pumped to farms and cities, drying up feeding spots. Hope is on the horizon, though. Researchers have taken to snail farming to boost the food supply.

 

Since 1967, the snail kite has been listed as endangered. Fewer than 1,000 of the birds are left in Florida, the only place they exist in the United States. Paradoxically, the kite is not in trouble southward in Cuba, Central America and South America. There, they are thriving. #

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