And Then There Were Four...time Is Running Out for the Dusky Seaside Sparrow

updated 06/04/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/04/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The dusky seaside sparrow is a dark brown bird. It measures no more than six inches from beak to tail and weighs about an ounce. If you saw one in your backyard, you wouldn't look twice. But the thing is, you're not likely to see one in your backyard because there are only four known duskies left in the world, and they all live on an island in central Florida.

The dusky may lack the majesty of the eagle or the grace of the whooping crane, but for a small bird it sure has caused a big flap. Its original habitat, an area bordering Cape Canaveral, was permanently altered by mosquito-control programs. It is the first creature on the endangered species list that will become extinct in spite of a determined federal effort to rescue it. And extinction, sadly, is certain. The four remaining duskies are all male.

An incredible $5 million has been spent in a futile attempt to save the dusky subspecies. Most of that money was used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the early '70s to buy 6,100 acres near the Kennedy Space Center for a protected habitat. But with each passing year there were fewer duskies; and when grass fires killed all the females, the government decided to capture the remaining males.

The four duskies live in separate cages on Discovery Island, which is part of Disney World. Their keeper is Charles Cook, 35, a determined naturalist who refuses to accept the dusky's demise. "If we are true to ourselves," he says, "then that little bird is as important as anything else on earth." Cook and members of the Florida Audubon Society have arranged for the duskies to mate with two hybrid female sparrows, one of which is 50 percent dusky, the other 25. The first hatchings were expected last week.

The duskies are nothing if not well protected. Five locks on a series of doors shield them from the public. A concrete floor and metal baffle on an outside wall keep out snakes and rodents, a steel-mesh barrier guards against raccoons, and the cages are surrounded by a line of salt to discourage insects. Each dusky has his own private sprinkler overhead, which simulates rainshowers when the temperature goes above 85°F. Pampered they may be, but time is running out. Ranging in age from 7 to 9, they have already lived twice as long as sparrows in the wild. The dusky "was like a comet going by," says Cook wistfully, already using the past tense. "It arrived, spent some time, then vanished."

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