It's been a long time since a bird species has gone extinct in the Lower 48. According to Milan Bull, the Connecticut Audubon Society's senior director of science and conservation, the last avian species to go extinct in the continental US was the heath hen, which went extinct in 1931, a full 85 years ago. However, the dusky seaside sparrow, a subspecies of seaside sparrow that was once found in the salt marshes of Florida, was declared extinct in 1990.
Even with that more recent loss, we've had a good run of not letting our feathered friends disappear and many of us would like to keep that run going. However, the saltmarsh sparrow is coming dangerously close to breaking the streak.
According to the Christian Science Monitor:
The population of saltmarsh sparrows, which reside on the East Coast from Maine to Virginia during the breeding season and migrate south in the winter, has dropped about 9 percent annually since 1998, researchers say. They attribute the waning population to rising sea levels and structures such as roads and railways, both of which have led to a loss of nesting areas for the half-ounce birds. If nothing is done, scientists warn, the saltmarsh sparrow could be extinct in 50 years.
A solution is quite difficult since the threats involve sea level rise and infrastructure. Though significant funds have been invested in improving coastal wetlands, not enough has been done specifically to improve the habitat for breeding sparrows.
The Connecticut Audubon Society is calling for solutions, including for state officials to more directly address sea level rise, finding efforts to help coastal wetland habitat migrate farther inland, and asking private landowners and public land managers to create better habitat for the saltmarsh sparrows.
Because of its reliance on coastal wetland ecosystems, the plight of the saltmarsh sparrow reveals what other species are (or will soon be) facing by living in the thin margin between the ocean and human developments.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story did not include a mention of the dusky seaside sparrow because it is a subspecies. However, we included it in an update to clarify when the last bird went extinct.