2015-10-01 / Nature

Biologists Work to Save Sparrow Species

By Jack Kelly


USFWS biologist Nick Ernst releases bird with antenna. (Photos by Jack Kelly) USFWS biologist Nick Ernst releases bird with antenna. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow has one of the most restricted breeding and nesting regions of any North American songbird. From Virginia to Maine this species nests on narrow strips of coastal salt marshes, which contain smooth cordgrass. But the breed has suffered severe population declines over the past four decades due to the loss of this crucial nesting habitat. Most mating songbird males stake out a territory and will sing night and day to attract females. However, the male saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow is forced to roam widely in search of females due to their declining numbers. The species winters in a very narrow band of coastal marshes from Virginia south to Florida, and in a small region of the Gulf Coast.

An Aquidneck Island marsh area, located adjacent to Third Beach and part of the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, has been a breeding and nesting site for this species for many years. It is now one of the sites included in an international, collaborative project combining the resources of the Canadian Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian universities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Connecticut, and the University of New Hampshire.


A nanoradio transmitter in place on captured sparrow. A nanoradio transmitter in place on captured sparrow. A team of USFWS biologists and interns recently conducted a “mist netting” in the salt marsh in an effort to determine the size of the sparrow’s population and to gather critical data vital to the study. The birds captured in the nets were weighed, measured, checked for overall health, and had a special nanoradio transmitter affixed to their bodies. The team performed other crucial biological tests before the diminutive sparrows were released back into the marsh.

According to University of Connecticut biology professor Chris Elphich, Ph.D., “This program is being conducted on three national wildlife refuges in New England, including Park River NWR in Massachusetts, Rachel Carson NWR in Maine, and of course here at Sachuest Point. We hope to gain insight into this species and to track their movements during migration."


Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. "The special harness that holds the transmitter in place," Elphich added, "is designed to wear away and drop off in four-five months, and does no harm to the bird. Nor does it affect their flight or their ability to gain weight prior to migration.”

While USFWS and UConn are doing the field work, UNH is committed to laboratory DNA and genetic research. Researchers hope that information gathered from this project will allow both Canadian and American biologists to better understand the species, while enabling appropriate agencies to protect habitats critical to the survival of the breed. “Early work by Canadian Fish and Wildlife Services and Canadian universities, laid the groundwork for this project," Elphich said. "It may help to understand a number of species.”

A network of radio tracking antennas has been established over the past two years along the Atlantic coast of North America, stretching from the Canadian Maritimes to southern New Jersey. Plans call for additional facilities to be erected as far south as the Carolinas in the near future. Two antennas are being utilized in Rhode Island, at Sachuest NWR and Napa Tree Point in South County. This system was established to track a multitude of species fitted with transmitters during late summer and fall migration.

The noted biologist and author Rachel Carson once wrote, “Here and there awareness is growing that man, far from being the overlord of all creation, is himself a part of nature, subject to the same cosmic forces that control all other life. Man’s future welfare and probably even his survival depend upon his learning to live in harmony, rather than in combat, with these forces.”

Return to top