One of the rarest dramas of nature is now at its climax in Florida. The outcome will go far to determine whether a bird threatened with extinction can survive. The bird is the Everglades kite, a slaty black hawk about 16 inches long and three and a half feet across the wings. It would be the rarest bird in North America, now that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct, except for the handful of Eskimo curlews that has recently been discovered. Last week there were 19 kites.
The Everglades kite is the most fastidious gourmet imaginable. This hawk lives exclusively on snails. The most fanatical human gourmet is not likely to get escargots more than once or twice a week, and even then he has to be content with any one of half a dozen kinds that the restaurateur may have happened to pick up at the fish market. The Everglades kite eats only one kind: the freshwater apple snail. From the day he cracks out of the shell until the day he finally bites the saw grass—or his kind becomes extinct—he eats nothing but apple snails.
The kite does not take his snails � l'ail, with garlic. He takes them on the wing. He hunts by flying low over the shallow waters of the Everglades. When he sees a snail within range of his longish legs and strong talons, he swoops down, grabs it and is airborne again almost instantly.
The kite carries the snail to a favorite perch on a dwarf cypress or a stumpy myrtle bush. The apple snails have an operculum, a trapdoor of horny material to protect their soft bodies. The kite does not use main force to pry out the snail with his long billhook. He usually holds the snail still until the operculum opens and the tender body protrudes tentatively. In a flash the kite uses the sharp tip of his superhooked bill, with a neurosurgeon's precision, to stab the snail's nervous center—its equivalent of a brain. This paralyzes it so that it can no longer withdraw into the sanctuary of its shell. Then the kite may gulp it whole, operculum and all, or take delicate half-inch bites at leisure.
The Everglades kite is an average-size hawk and not vividly colored. The male is black all over except for a white patch around the base of the tail and a narrow fringe at the tail's end. The female is dark brown above, white-and-brown-streaked below, with the same white tail ornamentation. Only the birds' eyes, facial skin, legs and feet are of striking hue: bright red in the male, orange-red in the female. There are similar and closely related races of snail hawks in Cuba and Mexico and in Central and South America. But the Florida remnant is all that the U.S. has to show of a fascinating and striking native bird.
Though Audubon apparently never saw Everglades kites, in his day they were common over the wetlands of peninsular Florida, north almost to the Georgia line and especially through the Everglades from Okeechobee south.
But that was before man decided to drain much of the Glades for farmland and to draw off water from the remainder for irrigation. The apple snails can survive only where there is standing water most of the year. If the Glades floor dries out, the snails burrow into the mud. Two or three years of drought kill the breeding stock of snails. And after the drought is broken, it takes the slow-motion snails many years to recolonize an area.
From the turn of the century until this year the story of the Everglades kite could be summed up in two words: steady decline. Abundant in the Loxahatchee area until 1921, it disappeared from there by 1923. The survivors made their last stand at Lake Okeechobee. The National Audubon Society maintained a warden there, but the area is almost impossible to police. When I went there in February of 1961, a dozen birds had been expected to be ready to nest, but Warden Glenn Chandler and I could find only one, and he had no mate. The next couple of years took the kite to its nadir. Drought and man dropped the water level all over southern Florida. Much of Okeechobee went dry. Some of the saw grass turned to tinder and burned. With only nine known survivors, there were fewer kites than the lowest counts for the California condor, the great white heron or the whooping crane.
A couple of kites had been seen off and on since 1961 at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. In early April last year there were three or four, including one pair that looked as though it might be nesting. William Julian, the refuge manager, and Ira Westbrook, a refuge patrolman, counted seven kites in all during the month.
There were five nests a building in the refuge. This did not necessarily mean five pairs of birds. The male kite builds two or three nests, and his bride picks the one she likes. She rearranges the willow-twig furniture and lays two or three eggs.