Orlando Sentinel: Snail kites’ plight

When your diet consists of one kind of snail, it can be tough to be a bird.

And now the endangered snail kite is having a hard time finding even its one staple, thanks to a drought in South Florida.

Recent research shows that the raptors are in greater peril than once thought. Populations in Florida are older than scientists previously knew, and fewer young birds are returning to the nest or surviving. Older birds also have a decreasing chance of survival, researchers say.”I think we are getting at an emergency state at this point,” said Brian Reichert, 25, University of Florida field biologist and researcher.Hoping to boost food supplies at one of the birds’ favorite nesting areas affected by drought, the South Florida Water Management District recently collected 9,000 apple-snail eggs and hopes to hatch them in captivity and release the immature snails later this month.
What makes the snail kite unique?
The curved beak, perfect for prying snails from shells, sets it apart from other raptors and is an example of adaptation. As a result, apple snails are its primary and nearly sole food source, found in few freshwater bodies.
How do they know it’s in danger?
Researchers, led by University of Florida professor and research ecologist Wiley Kitchens, and field biologists with the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit visit Lake Tohopekaliga in Osceola County once every several days to check nesting areas of the hawks, track data from the birds with radio transmitters, take measurements of captured raptors and put bands on legs of baby birds.
Where is the snail kite’s home?

The birds’ range is Central America, the Everglades and Central Florida. With a drought in South Florida decimating their food source, nearly all the Everglades birds have moved to Central Florida.
How is their food supply affected?

A snail kite may eat 2 1/2 apple snails a day. The adults carry them in their talons to the nest to feed their young. Apple snails lay their eggs above water on aquatic plants, and the baby snails drop into the water.

“The snails need to be able to climb up the plant because the bird needs to be able to see it and pluck it off,” Reichert said.
Is this common for a bird to eat only one thing?

“Not really. This is highly specialized, but this is the thing flight does for you. It allows you to be picky, like ‘I’m only going to eat in the finest restaurants,’ ” said Paul Gray, Okeechobee biologist and birding expert for Audubon of Florida.
Other natural threats

Another threat to the snail kite is an invasive species of snail, the larger channeled apple snail, which is taking over the habitat of the native snail. The larger snail’s size makes it harder for the kites to carry and extract it from the shell.
Why should people care about the snail kite?

While the bird’s world populations don’t meet thresholds of population decline on an international “red list,” the latest research points to a higher probability of extinction of the Florida subspecies than ever before. Habitat degradation, much of it caused by man, remains one of the main obstacles the birds face.
What can we do?

*Reduce fertilizer use, which winds up in water bodies and feeds vegetation such as water hyacinth that chokes small waterways and can harm habitat.

*Steer clear of snailkite nesting areas on Lake Toho, which are marked with signs and include grassy areas of cattails and other marsh grasses.

*Support efforts to minimize spraying of hydrilla around nesting areas and during snailkite nesting season.

(Rostrhamus sociabilis)

An endangered raptor with sharp talons and keen eyesight. The U.S. population lives mostly in two small clusters in Florida.

By the numbers

*1,000 left in the U.S., down from about 3,000 in the 1990s.

*74 active nests in U.S. range.

*57 active nests on Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee.

*16 percent decrease in adult survival from 2000-02.

Color: Males are gray; females are brown with stripes. In flight, both have a patch of white at the base of the tail.



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