Everybody hates the snowbirds who plod down Interstate 275 in the left lane while migrating south for the winter. While we all look out for the snowbirds on the road, there are many birds off the road that deserve more attention because their existence may be threatened by habitat destruction or invasion from non-native species.
The state of Florida is home to one of the most diverse populations of birds in the United States. Along with the state’s large number of resident species of birds, there are also many species that migrate annually from all over the continent, and some of the most spectacular can be found on the USF campus and its surrounding areas.
The Florida sandhill crane is listed as a threatened species by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC). Many of these birds dwell just north of the USF Tampa Campus in a large area of wetland and forest that forms the upper Hillsborough River watershed. Much of this land is accessible to the public along Morris Bridge Road.
The sandhill crane is a large wading bird that stands on long, skinny black legs and reaches about 4 feet tall as an adult. It has gray plumage and a trademark bright red head.
According to Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida FWC’s southwest region, the FWC granted status of threatened protects sandhill cranes on an individual basis. The state of Florida also has the power to protect the animal’s habitat on state-owned land. The state, however, has no control over land that is privately held.
“Very often what’s happened is that with urbanization and development, we are starting to compete with these animals for their habitat and particularly nesting habitats,” Morse said. “That’s why we’re starting to see the problems that are created by people with sandhill cranes. Because we have new developments, (developers) come in, they develop the area, people start to live there and sandhill cranes are already there. Then people start to find that they have this affinity for the wildlife, and they do exactly the wrong thing: They feed it instead of leave it alone.
“Habitat is the key to managing and conserving any species, and the sandhill crane is excellent example of what needs to be done to conserve the kind of habitat that it requires in order to survive,” Morse said.
Arlene Czyzowski is a federally and state-permitted wildlife rehabilitator at Wildlife Haven in Hillsborough County. Wildlife Haven deals with sandhill cranes that have encountered the perils of human invasion into their habitat. The process of construction can be just as harmful as the finished product.
“We’ve had a great number of sandhill cranes that were hit by cars and hurt,” Czyzowski said.
“(Cranes) go into construction sites because that’s where the open fields where they used to go and roam were. There were two cases we had last year. One had a nail gun’s nail hit it in the head and rammed a nail between the nostril and the eye. We had another one that was hung with an extension cord.”
Sandhill cranes generally form mated pairs for the duration of their lifespan, Czyzowski said. This makes the protection and conservation of each individual crane that much more important.
“We’ve had just a greater number, and we’ve had more parents that are hit by cars and babies that are brought to us orphaned,” Czyzowski said. “If they’re young, they will get over it and hopefully match up with another mate. But they’re generally mated for life if nothing happens to the mate.”
Sandhill cranes share their native regions around USF with a number of non-native species, as well. Ever notice all those ducks wandering around campus? The majority of them are a non-native species called Muscovy ducks. Muscovys are native to South America but have become a popular ornamental animal in the United States. The species also readily reverts to life as a wild animal and successfully breeds in the wild, competing with native species for food and habitat. Domestic mallards are a similar non-native species that are commonplace in all of Florida, including the Tampa Bay area.
The Florida mottled duck is one such species threatened by the aforementioned non-natives.
“Mottled ducks are a part of Florida’s native wildlife,” said Diane Eggeman, waterfowl management program director for the Florida FWC. “The mottled ducks in Florida do not migrate, and it’s a subspecies that occurs nowhere else in the world. They’re considered a migratory bird legally, and that puts them under federal protection.”
Interbreeding between domestic mallards and mottled ducks is threatening the future of the mottled.
“The mallards that people are releasing don’t migrate,” Eggeman said. “They stay here year round, and they’re here in and amongst the mottled ducks. Because they’re very closely related, they regularly interbreed and their offspring are fertile.”
According to Eggeman, by controlling the hybridization of the mottled duck, it is hoped that it can be conserved it as a genetically uniform species.
“Our hope is to maintain the current population of mottled ducks genetically intact,” Eggeman said. “We think that’s doable if we can control the hybridization problem. They seem highly adaptable habitat-wise; they’re not so specifically tied to certain kinds of wetlands. They seem to readily use developed areas.
Habitat destruction is the biggest problem that faces all the birds that can be seen around campus. According to Morse, the state of Florida is doing all it can to help.
There are fair numbers of birds of prey that call the USF community their home. Bald eagles are listed as a threatened species by the FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; ospreys are listed as a species of special concern by the Florida FWC. Both of these birds depend on the dwindling wetlands habitats left in the state. “People and pollution” are the biggest threats to these birds, according to Czyzowski.
“It’s the amount of housing and subdivisions going up. There are just so many people coming in,” Czyzowski said. “The natural areas that (birds of prey) hunt and fish in now have subdivisions going up (in them). (The birds) have less food available because we’re putting up all these runoff ponds and reservoirs. We’re posing more problems to the birds than ever before.”
The goal of Czyzowski’s rehabilitation of birds of prey is ultimately release.
“If an eagle comes in, we have to contact (the FWS) and let them know the status of the eagle,” Czyzowski said. “From there on, if there is a situation where we have a wing that is broken that can be fixed, we go ahead and do that. We pin the wing and take care of it, then it goes into rehab. After that, it goes into a flight cage, and then we go out for a release.”
Urban development is in large part responsible for the vast majority of habitat loss in Florida.
Therefore, humans potentially could prevent the vast majority of habitat loss in the state.
“This state has the largest conservation land-buying program in the world,” Morse said. “So that is one of the important steps that the state has taken to conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat. That and buying conservation easements are really the only effective tools the state has to conserve most wildlife.”