Published: January 2009

Countdown to Extinction

A wild ocelot.

Last One

In the United States as elsewhere, stopping the countdown to extinction means preserving healthy habitats—the aim of the celebrated and scorned Endangered Species Act.

By Verlyn Klinkenborg
Photograph by Joel Sartore

The final resting place of the last dusky seaside sparrow is a glass bottle in the Ornithology Collection at the Florida Museum of Natural History. The bird's eyes are heavily mantled, and its feathers have been ruffled by the alcohol that nearly fills the bottle. A paper tag states that the bird, an old male, died on June 16, 1987. Three and a half years after that sparrow's death, a terse entry appeared in the Federal Register announcing that the dusky seaside sparrow was now extinct and had been removed from the federal government's list of endangered and threatened wildlife. Neither the bird nor its critical habitat—the salt marshes of Florida's Merritt Island, which is

also the home of the John F. Kennedy Space Center—would be protected any longer by the Endangered Species Act.

What killed the sparrows of Merritt Island? In a word, improvements. No one ate the dusky seaside sparrow or hunted it for sport. Its nests weren't vandalized, nor was it suddenly preyed upon by a newly introduced predator. But by spraying with DDT to control mosquitoes and building impoundments that allowed freshwater vegetation to take over the salt marshes, humans adjusted the ecosystem—hoping to improve their own lives—and discovered, too late, how finely attuned to its home in the cordgrass the dusky seaside sparrow really was. That last bottled sparrow is what a species looks like when its habitat has vanished for good.

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |