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Extinct Dusky Seaside Sparrow Not Likely in Our Backyards

Dear Bird Folks,

Can you help me identify a bird I found eating from my feeder? Its back was dark and the breast was heavily spotted; it had an eye stripe, grayish bill, black eye, and was about the size of a starling. My guidebook suggests it’s a Dusky Seaside Sparrow, but my book also claims those birds are only found in Florida. Any guesses?

– Joan, Centerville, MA


Very good, Joan,

Your narrative on your mystery bird was excellent. That’s a rare thing in my world. Most of the time the descriptions I receive sound more like a Sci-Fi creature than any bird found on this continent. And if a married couple tries to describe a mystery bird, forget it. Not only will their observations differ, but they’ll spend so much time arguing with each other that I won’t have a clue what the bird actually looked like. Unfortunately, despite your excellent description, that wasn’t a Dusky Seaside Sparrow in your yard. Even though their images still remain in most bird books, it’s my sad duty to inform you that the Dusky Seaside Sparrow has been extinct for over twenty-five years. Sorry. I usually don’t write about such things this time of year. I like to save the depressing topics for the winter, when most of us are already depressed. However, I think I can tie your question into a summer topic, so let’s go for it. But first I’ll fill you in on the cheery subject of the Dusky Seaside Sparrows’ extinction. Better get out the tissues.

I’ve never met you, Joan, but I’d be willing to bet you hate mosquitoes. Just about every creature hates them. Well, every creature except maybe a few mosquito-eating bats and the guy who sells OFF!. But no bird has had more issues with mosquitoes than the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. This streaky little brown bird, which is a subspecies of the Seaside Sparrow, once lived in a very limited area along Florida’s east-central coast. This same area was also heavily infested with mosquitoes, but the birds didn’t mind. The bugs kept the people away. Then DDT came along.

Spraying killed lots of mosquitoes, but it also killed lots of other things, including birds. The few sparrows that somehow survived the DDT onslaught next had to deal with another problem, the space race. NASA didn’t want mosquitoes bothering their astronauts, so they flooded the area around the Kennedy Space Center. I’m not sure why NASA thought flooding would decrease mosquitoes, but it was devastating to the remaining sparrows. Then, with the mosquitoes somewhat under control, people began coming to the area. That led to a demand for more roads, which of course they built right in the middle of the very last bit of sparrow habitat. It all was too much for the Dusky Seaside Sparrow to take. By 1979 only six Dusky Seaside Sparrows were left alive in the entire world. At this point the officials finally got around to doing something about saving the birds. They quickly captured the remaining sparrows in order to start a breeding program. The trouble was, the remaining birds were all males. Oops! (An all-male society might seem like a good idea, but it has some serious design flaws.) The officials had waited too long and now there wasn’t anything anyone could do to save the birds. The six remaining Dusky Seaside Sparrows lived out their lives in an isolated flight cage in, of all places, Disney World. Yes, Disney World. (Disney’s Discovery Island to be precise.) One by one, the lone males simply passed away. The very last Dusky Seaside Sparrow died on June 17, 1987. So, you see, Joan, as much as I’d like the mystery bird at your feeder to be a Dusky Seaside Sparrow, it’s not possible. Right now you are thinking, “Okay, fine. I don’t have an extinct bird, but what the heck is it?” This is where the timing of your question comes into play. See, aren’t you glad you kept reading?

This time of year many birds aren’t always what they seem to be. August is one of the most frustrating months for bird watchers. We get more questions about “mystery birds” in August than any other month. Why? All of the birds are molting. Goofy-looking baby birds are becoming goofy-looking juveniles and some adults are transforming from breeding plumage into winter plumage. We hear about speckled bluebirds, brown-beaked cardinals, bald-headed Blue Jays, doves with no tails and male Red-winged Blackbirds with dark stripes. That last bird could be the answer to your question. During their first summer of life, male Red-winged Blackbirds aren’t all black; they are covered in dark stripes. They look much like what the Dusky Seaside Sparrow looks like…or used to look like.

I didn’t see your mystery bird, Joan, but based on your description, I’m guessing you had a young male Red-winged Blackbird. (Or a female redwing, which is streaky and sparrow-like year-round. But knowing that ahead of time would have spoiled my story.) Identifying birds will be a real challenge in the coming weeks, but eventually all the molting will be complete and the birds will start to look more normal. As for the Dusky Seaside Sparrows, we won’t be seeing them again. I know it sounds sad, but I have a feeling the birds were glad to finally move on to bird heaven. After years of being kept in a Disney cage and forced to listen to “It’s a small world after all” blasting from the nearby Magic Kingdom, extinction seems like a way better option.