The most endangered bird in the continental U.S. is one that unfortunately seldom makes headlines. The Florida grasshopper sparrow, found nowhere else in the world, is a federally endangered species. These unassuming birds are no more than 5 inches long, with flat heads, short tails, and brown, grey, and black feathers that camouflage the birds in their habitat. These sparrows, recognizable by their buzzy calls that resemble a grasshopper in flight, are endemic to the dry prairie ecosystem of central and south Florida. Since they do not migrate, Florida grasshopper sparrows live in this restricted territory year-round, and it is thought that most individuals live their entire lives within a few miles of their birthplace.
Due to their exclusive dependence upon this particular prairie habitat, 85% of which has been destroyed over the years, the sparrow has suffered immensely. By the 1970s, most prairies in their native range had been ditched, drained, or altered to serve human purposes; specifically, the majority of prairie loss has resulted from conversion into domestic pasture grasses to support cattle operations. While many prairie species have managed in this altered environment, the Florida grasshopper sparrow has not adapted, as this “improved pasture” lacks the structure the birds need for survival---they require native prairie in prime condition, which should be burned every two years. Unfortunately, the exact causes of the decline are not known, but suboptimal habitat management, diseases, genetic problems, and nest predation by fire ants and other species are likely culprits.
While the reasons for their disappearance in recent decades is somewhat a mystery, one thing is certain: the Florida grasshopper sparrow was, and remains, in dire need of help. The sub-population of Florida grasshopper sparrows dwelling in the Avon Park Bombing Range dropped from about 130 singing males in 1999 to a mere 10 in 2004, and in 2019, there were the lowest counts of the sparrow on record in all three of the sub-populations. Fortunately, in 2014 a captive breeding program run by federal officials was initiated to intervene in this issue. While there were several initial hurdles to overcome, in part caused by difficulties locating the small and elusive birds in dense vegetation, and complications with intestinal parasites spreading throughout the population in 2016, by 2019 the techniques at the program became so successful that the team released more than 100 sparrows into the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. With the help of transmitters, field biologists are able to track the movement and courtships of the sparrows. Last spring, 50 more of these rare birds were sent out into the wild, and as luck would have it, not only did most survive, they successfully nested that same year, further contributing to the growing population.
In light of the triumphs of these recent conservation efforts, this species has an optimistic future. The breeding program has expanded to several facilities, giving conservationists confidence that they will be able to release even more sparrows in coming years. The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida states that conservation breeding is an essential part of a five-year strategy aimed at stabilizing the sparrow’s wild population. By raising and releasing captive-bred birds, they are buying time to protect and restore more of their habitat, establish new wild populations, and manage the diseases, predators, and parasites that threaten their livelihood. The long-term goal is to phase out captive breeding to a point where it’s no longer necessary, but without this program, which is truly the last hope for the Florida grasshopper sparrow, models indicate the species will go extinct in the wild within the next ten years.
Importantly, as Craig Pittman, a National Geographic reporter, reminds us, “to many, they’re just little brown birds. They’re not especially beautiful or exciting or awe-inspiring. And that is part of the challenge in saving them.” What counts is that the Florida grasshopper sparrow is intrinsically a part of Florida’s, and therefore North America’s, biodiversity. Moreover, as an indicator species, the presence or absence of these little sparrows points to the health of the surrounding ecosystem. The near extinction of this species points to the intersections between habitat loss, climate change, and the role humans play in driving these forces, but the laborious and dedicated efforts by scientists prove the strong alliance between humanity and nature.
Written By — Mia Rosati
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Watch this video “Saving Florida’s Sparrow” to learn about White Oak Conservation’s work to bring back the Florida grasshopper sparrow.