Everglade snail kite

Everglade snail kite (ac4photos, courtesy)

Everglade snail kites abandoned their young to die at six nests on Lake Okeechobee over the past week, as the pumping of water from the lake for farms and cities dried up the birds' foraging areas.

The birds build nests in vegetation over the water to protect their young from raccoons, snakes and other predators. Scientists found dead nestlings that had apparently starved to death over the past week after the adults left, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Zach Welch, the commission's snail kite coordinator, said the dropping water level in the lake eliminated the vegetation in which the birds forage for apple snails, by far their most important source of food.

"The lake level is so low right now there's very little habitat for the birds to forage in," he said. "There were dead chicks in the nests, which is an indication that they were left to starve by the adults."

The South Florida Water Management District began pumping water out of the lake last week for drought-stricken farms, which have had to sharply cut the use of water. Gabe Margasak, spokesman for the water management district, said the pumping provides for "groundwater recharge and agriculture operations, which are critical to the state’s economy."

Audubon of Florida reported Wednesday that the lost nests included nine nestlings and four eggs. Only three nests remain on the lake. The young birds are starting to fly at one of these nests but not the others, leading the organization to express deep concern about their future as the water level continues to drop.

The Everglade snail kite is among the most endangered birds of South Florida, being dependent for food on the apple snail, which has sustained a sharp decline due to drought over the past few years.

Audubon strongly opposed the decision, saying increased water conservation was preferable to drying out wildlife habitat. The group sent a letter to the district last week saying the pumping “poses significant risk to the designated critical habitat and nesting success of the Everglade Snail Kite, a federally endangered species with only 700 individuals left in Florida.”