Snail Kites move north as health of Everglades, Lake O wane
The snail kite is a bird of prey that, until very recently, was only found in South Florida. And the snail kite, also until very recently, has eaten one thing: Florida’s native apple snail, which the snail kite has uniquely evolved to be able to eat.
Back in the year 2000, there were about 3,000 of the birds in the state, but by 2010, their population had decreased to just 700. The apple snail, which is their only source of food, was disappearing with drought.
Then came a new, invasive, exotic apple snail that is bigger than our native Florida apple snail.
"They're just like a native snail on steroids. These exotic snails have been very resistant to the water management problems we have," said Science Coordinator for Audubon Florida's Everglades restoration program Paul Gray.
The snail kite population has rebounded to between two and 3,000, as the snail kite has started living off the invasive exotic snail species. While that sounds positive, our native apple snail isn't doing very well. According to Gray, that could be a reflection of the overall health of Lake Okeechobee and the ecosystem south through the Everglades.
"Unfortunately, like last year, it was very, very dry in spring and Lake Okeechobee didn't have a single snail kite nest on it and neither did the Everglades," said Gray.
"And so the population estimate last year declined by about maybe 20%."
Gray says if the snail kites can’t find enough food to feed themselves or their babies, they simply won’t nest, but as the invasive snails have moved North, the snail kites have followed, and are now living along the Gulf rim all the way to Louisiana, and the number one nesting site in the entire state most recently was Paynes Prairie, near Gainesville.