Florida originally had eight different sparrows, living among tall grasses in dry prairies and swampy marshes from Central Florida to the Southern Everglades. Weakened by natural habitat loss from over development of Florida’s Dry Prairie Ecosystem, the song of these birds may soon go silent.
As the Miami Herald reports, grasshopper sparrows are considered North America’s rarest bird, and there are now less than 40 nesting pairs left in the wild.
According to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, habitat fragmentation and loss due to development, lack of frequent prairie fires, storm-related flooding, and high nest predation rates have caused a dramatic decline in its population over the past 40 years.
The conversion of open prairie habitat to farmland has caused destruction of available habitats for the grasshopper sparrow, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports.
For years, federal authorities clashed with biologists over the best way to protect these birds after breeding them in captivity, with the former pushing to release the birds into the wild, and calls against such a practice from the latter. Some scientists argued that the birds would be virtually defenseless against predators in the wild.
As reported by the National Audubon Society, “There is something fundamentally wrong-feeling and queasy-making about attempting to save a bird from extinction by capturing a small but significant number of its last remaining healthy wild specimens and putting them in what is, no matter how roomy or well-festooned with appropriate vegetation, a prison. It’s the sort of Sophie’s Choice that leaves biologists and all lovers of wildlife feeling gutted.”
However, the US Fish and Wildlife Service ended the FSGP Program and the partnership with the biologists at the Rare Species Conservation Foundation. In 2019, US Fish and Wildlife Service relocated the birds in the research area, WFME reports.
Since that first release in 2019 the sparrows have shown some resilience. The captive-raised sparrows have paired and bred with their wild counterparts, producing offspring that are breeding. Juan Oteyza of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says the total wild population has jumped to more than 120.
But the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is still on the brink.
“The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is not out of the woods yet,” says Paul Gray, PhD, Okeechobee Science Coordinator for Audubon Florida. “Breeding and releases are still experimental and wild populations remain low, but with the cooperation and support of so many different entities, including Audubon, we are making great progress,” he added.
A intestinal parasite is driving this species toward extinction, while input from the biologists already researching and practicing ways to protect this vital sparrow is all but ignored in favor of federal captive breeding programs, The Revelator reports.
Adopting growth management plans that value adding to conservation lands and preventing the future extinction of animals is imperative, contends the Audubon Society. Prescribed burning has also been found to support positive outcomes in conserving the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow’s habitat, as it prevents their nesting areas from becoming overgrown and obstructs the invasion of woody plants.
Now is the opportunity to work with the biologists who have dedicated years in the research and breeding program to give these rare birds a chance at survival.
This article by Matthew Russell was first published by The Animal Rescue Site. Lead Image: PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / MARY PETERSON – THE FLORIDA GRASSHOPPER SPARROW IS THE RAREST BIRD IN NORTH AMERICA.
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