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A coastal sparrow that is trying to beat the odds

Saltmarsh Sparrow
Mark Faherty
Saltmarsh Sparrow

Recently, Mass Audubon has turned its conservational gaze upon an inconspicuous and imperiled coastal resident. This saltmarsh sprite lives life on the edge, only nesting in the daily-flooded coastal marshes from southern Maine to Chesapeake Bay, where they struggle to complete their nesting cycle between the monthly high tides. Some grim recent population studies give this species a low chance of surviving beyond mid-century, and it’s already 2024. It’s the Saltmarsh Sparrow, and you should see them while you can.

Saltmarsh Sparrows are, like most sparrows, sort of brownish little birds of the sort that don’t exactly turn the heads of non-birders. Even its tortured little song is hard to notice — even when close, they sound like they are really far away and struggling with some combination of constipation and laryngitis. They are indeed brown and streaky, but in fresh plumage they sport a striking orange-yellow face, of a color the bird books typically call “ochraceous,” which probably doesn’t mean much unless you’re an artist or sell paint.

They have a short tail with spiky feathers, hence their old name of Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Some time ago the nomenclature people mercifully shortened their name from “Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow” to just Saltmarsh Sparrow. Before that, when you tried to point them out on a bird walk, by the time you finished saying “look, there’s a Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow,” the bird was long gone.

If they sound tortured, it’s with good reason. At least 40% of their coastal marshes have been lost to development since the 1800s. What’s left of saltmarshes are being squeezed by sea level rise on one side and coastal development on the other — where marshes used to be able to move inland with changing sea levels, now they are bumping up against rock walls and houses, which means they are simply shrinking. Efforts to list Saltmarsh Sparrows under the federal Endangered Species Act have stalled, but here in Massachusetts, they are protected as a Species of Special Concern. Perhaps because they may have so little time left, they really seem to live it up — they are what the ornithologists call promiscuous breeders, with both sexes having multiple partners, to the extent that every egg in a nest may have a different father. You go, Saltmarsh Sparrows.

On Monday I, decidedly not a promiscuous breeder, was out in the marshes around Wellfleet Bay sanctuary to conduct surveys for Saltmarsh Sparrows, I was joined by two Mass Audubon research techs who have mostly been working at Allen’s Pond sanctuary in South Dartmouth. Those marshes around Allen’s Pond are still a stronghold - so far this season they have banded over 200 Saltmarsh Sparrows down there. But here on the outer Cape the bay side marshes are dissolving before our eyes, succumbing to a witch’s brew of sea level rise, lack of new sediments to raise the marsh surface, and an herbivorous, marsh-munching crab with seemingly few predators. I was pleasantly surprised that we saw around 20 sparrows across our 12 survey points – that was more than I was expecting. Whether they are successfully raising young is a question for next year when we start the more intensive work of monitoring nests.

Some work down in New York by Cape Cod-kid done good Alex Cook, a Nauset High grad from Eastham, gives a glimmer of hope that these birds can hang on a little longer. During her master's research a few years ago, Alex saw Saltmarsh Sparrows building their nests higher and adapting to the use taller Spartina grasses taking over the more frequently flooded marshes there instead of the shorter marsh hay they usually nest in. So maybe the birds can beat the odds, at least for a while, by changing their behavior.

So here to sing us out with a lovely, melodic song of hope is a Saltmarsh Sparrow… ok, so maybe lovely and melodic were overselling it a bit.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.