by Whit Gibbons

April 1, 2002

Burrowing owls and gopher tortoises have more in common than underground living quarters: both are species teetering on the edge of a slippery slope to environmental disaster in Florida. Big Cypress fox squirrels, sandhill cranes, and a variety of bats are also in the mix, as discussed in "Florida's Fragile Wildlife: Conservation and Management," written by Don A. Wood and published in 2002 by the University of Florida Press. The book gives an accounting of the environmental status of more than a dozen vertebrates, mostly birds and mammals, native to Florida as well as suggestions on how to improve their circumstances.

The news, like most environmental reports from Florida these days, is disquieting if you appreciate wildlife. The upside, however, is that books like this provide a valuable service by making us all a little more familiar with the natural history and plights of particular species. First, people cannot address environmental problems if they are not aware of the problems or potential solutions. Second, finding out about the haunts and habits of any wildlife species usually brings us closer to a kinship and caring about what might happen to it.

Wood took a pragmatic approach from a conservation perspective in selecting species to cover in the book, choosing ones whose life history traits and habitat preferences would be most likely to make them responsive to management. The species encompass a wide range of Florida habitats, which the author indicates was intentional during the selection process. Another criterion was to select species for which federal, state, and local governments receive numerous requests for guidance about their protection and welfare. Another feature of each species is that they frequently occupy public lands in Florida.

Wood does not get far into the preface before accurately pointing out the factors that have placed Florida's wildlife in such a fragile condition, which he notes is "heightened by the marooning effect of the state being a peninsula." The major environmental problems he identifies are standard ones throughout the world at one level or another, namely, an expanding human population, the press of urban and industrial development, and the establishment of exotic species. He has no panacea for these problems, but neither has anyone else.

I enjoyed the species accounts, although picking a favorite would be difficult. Who could not appreciate the Florida burrowing owl, a tiny dynamo of a bird that stands less than eight inches high and weighs less than two ounces? These little owls dig their own burrows usually but are not averse to using the burrow of a gopher tortoise, a culvert, or a piece of PVC pipe. Considering the development under way in Florida, this last microhabitat should be on the increase. Of particular interest is that burrowing owls are the only U.S. owls that are active in the day as well as at night. Ironically, great horned owls, crows, and a variety of hawks and falcons are among the chief predators of these tiny owls.

Another featured fowl is the crested caracara, the national bird of Mexico,which became federally threatened in Florida in 1987. Caracaras are in the falcon family, and the U.S. species will take live prey but is actually closer to vultures in eating habits. A two-foot-tall, big-beaked bird with a black body, white neck, and a black coif that looks like it's been caught in a wind tunnel is not likely to be mistaken for any other bird. They are majestic looking in flight and carry food in their mouths instead of in their talons like most falcons. When they join vultures to feed on a dead animal, caracaras are dominant. Caracaras in Florida now possibly number fewer than 500 pairs due primarily to habitat loss and degradation.

If you are interested in reading about these and other fascinating species of wildlife, the book sells in hardcover for $39.95 and can be ordered directly from www.upf.com. A lower-priced paperback would be a preferred option, but the book provides information that will be of general interest to conservationists and of particular interest to anyone seeking information on the species discussed in the text.

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