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Belding's Savannah Sparrow: An Endangered Species in a Threatened Environment

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

In the local salt marshes found along the California coast ranging from Santa Barbara to Baja California lives a small non-migratory bird, the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) (California Fish and Wildlife Department, 2010). The Belding’s Savannah sparrow is a medium-sized sparrow identifiable by the small yellow patch around its eye and its small bill. On average, this bird will have light brown feathers with streaks of black on its back, which contrasts the bright white feathers underneath.

A Belding's Savannah Sparrow in a salt marsh. Photo by Christopher L. Christie. Taken from CalPhotos.

Within the salt marshes, there are various native plants and wildlife that are all interconnected to one another. Some of the commonly found plants consist of pickleweed (Salicornia virginica), saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), fleshy jaumea (Jaumea carnosa), Salt Marsh Bird’s beak (Cordylanthus maritimus), California sea lavender (Limonium californicum), and sea blite (Suaeda californica). These plants are adapted to grow in a high salt concentrated area because the water source of the area is connected to the ocean. Salt marshes typically receive an influx of water twice a day and run concurrently with the tides of the ocean nearby.

In 1974, the Belding's Savannah Sparrow was placed on the endangered species list as an endangered species in the State of California. This Belding's Savannah Sparrow is being threatened in two ways. The first is that the salt marshes that the bird is native to are slowly disappearing. Approximately 75% of the salt marshes on the west coast have been destroyed and developed into residential or commercial areas (Avian Conservation and Ecology). Of the few salt marshes that remain, there is an issue of visitors on the land, such as hikers, that have caused significant damage to the nesting areas of the Belding's Savannah Sparrow. Typically, as hikers walk through the area, they do not pay attention to this bird's nesting grounds and can cause unintentional harm to the plants that the Belding Savannah Sparrow creates its nest in.

Invasive Algerian sea lavender (left) next to native California sea lavender (right). Photo by Stacey Chartier-Grable.

The second threat to the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow is the rapid growth of invasive species, such as Algerian sea lavender (Limonium ramosissimum). California sea lavender is the native species to the salt marshes along the west coast, however around 2006, large populations of Algerian sea lavender began to appear (Romberg Tiburon Center of Environmental Studies San Francisco State University). It is unclear how this plant species came to the California salt marshes, but since its introduction, it has grown at an aggressive rate impacting the native species.

Pickleweed (Salicornia virginica), a common species in salt marsh habitats. Photo by Stacey Chartier-Grable.

Algerian sea lavender tends to grow right up to the low tidal zone in the salt marshes, where the native species of pickleweed tends to grow. Unfortunately, because pickleweed grows lower to the ground than the Algerian sea lavender, the two are in direct competition for resources. Over the years, it has dramatically decreased the number of native pickleweed plants found in those same areas. This is a problem because the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow's nesting area of choice is within the pickleweed, low to the ground, but high enough to avoid damage from the salt marsh's flooding. However, the Algerian sea lavender's height impairs the birds' ability to make a nest in any area that it grows. But, not only does the Algerian sea lavender threaten the native pickleweed species, it is pushing out the California sea lavender, the native sea lavender species to the coastal salt marshes.

Recently, there have been efforts to help the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow with several removal projects along the California coast. Many wildlife conservancies have placed the removal of this invasive species as a top priority in the salt marshes of the area. One example of this is in the San Francisco Bay, where the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation set out to help remove the Algerian sea lavender populating the area to help protect the Belding’s Savannah Sparrows in the area. Some environmental protection organizations in California have begun to form groups to go out into the salt marshes and remove the Algerian sea lavender. These organizations include, but are not limited to California Native Plant Society, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, The Nature Collective, Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation's Discovery Center, and locally, OC Habitats, Project Grow and the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy.

There are lots of great reasons to get involved in helping preserve the California salt marshes and the native species that live there. Whether you are an expert in the field of environmental science or just someone who wants to get involved in the preservation of your community, there are many great to help out. You can find more information regarding habitat protection in Orange County and how to get involved at the OC Habitats website.

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