Hope Springs Eternal for Biologist Working to Recover Highly Endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrows
A Florida grasshopper sparrow, oddly enough, eating a grasshopper. But this bird's name comes from the fact that its song sounds much like that of a grasshopper. Photo by Mary Peterson/USFWS
By Mary Peterson, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, South Florida Ecological Services Office
Back in 2012 (how is it that 2012 is both yesterday and a thousand years ago), a friend and co-worker gave me the heads-up about a potential opportunity to work on the Florida grasshopper sparrow recovery effort. Being a bit of a bird nerd, and having followed the plight of the Florida grasshopper sparrow since arriving to Florida in 2002, I said, “Sign me up!”
A biologist displays the bands on the legs of one of the Florida grasshopper sparrows released into the wild on May 9, 2019. Photo Courtesy of FWCA biologist displays the bands on the legs of one of the Florida grasshopper sparrows released into the wild on May 9, 2019. Photo Courtesy of FWC
The Florida grasshopper sparrow is native to central Florida and is considered the most critically endangered bird in North America. In 2012 when I joined the effort, the number of Florida grasshopper sparrows in the wild had dropped so low that we knew something drastic needed to be done.
In consultation with our partners, the Service decided to collect some sparrows to begin captive breeding while continuing to implement habitat management and research projects to reverse the decline.
Talk about scary! No one had ever tried to captive-breed this species before. These are tiny birds – about the size of a balled-up Kleenex, and they have a life-span around 3-5 years. But, with an increasingly bleak outlook, we knew this was a necessary effort.
FWS Biologists Mary Peterson (left) and Sandra Sneckenberger checking out the Florida prairie, looking and listening for Florida grasshopper sparrows. Photo by Jen Brown/Into Nature Films FWS Biologists Mary Peterson (left) and Sandra Sneckenberger checking out the Florida prairie, looking and listening for Florida grasshopper sparrows. Photo by Jen Brown/Into Nature Films
It was a bit of a bumpy ride in those early years – health challenges; getting their diet right; figuring out how many birds could be housed together; what the size of the enclosure should be, etc. But, we believe we have cracked that code. We can now produce (lots) of healthy sparrows in captivity.
So, the question is, “Can we successfully release them back into the wild?” We still don’t fully know the answer to this, but just like in the early days of learning how to captive-breed them, we are now starting to learn how to best release them back onto the landscape.
Here's the group of trackers showing off their gear shortly before captive-reared Florida grasshopper sparrows were released into the wild. From left Mary Peterson (USFWS), Ashleigh Blackford (USFWS), Karl Miller (FWC) Troy Hershberger (USAF), Rob Aldredge (USFWS/USAF liaison) and Jose Oteyza (FWC). Photo Courtesy of FWC
Thursday, May 9, 2019, was a seminal moment in our efforts to launch this species toward recovery. We joined with our partners at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to release the first-ever captive-reared Florida grasshopper sparrows onto their native dry prairie habitat at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area.
This is the "aviary on the prairie" where the captive-reared birds stayed for a couple of days before they were released. Photo Courtesy of FWC
Prior to their release, the birds spent two nights in the recently constructed aviary on the prairie to give them a chance recover from their trip from the breeding facility and to get them acclimated to being on the prairie.
This is one of the tiny tracking devices attached to each of the captive-reared Florida grasshopper sparrows released into the wild on May 9, 2019. Photo Courtesy of FWC
When panels were removed to allow the birds to exit the aviary, one bird eventually left on its own, but the others had to be gently ushered out a few minutes later. I was one of several biologists on site ready to track them on the initial phases of their new journeys via the small radio transmitters on their backs.
A male Florida grasshopper sparrow singing its heart out on the prairie. The Florida grasshopper sparrow is believed to be North America's most endangered bird; survey counts show fewer than 80 sparrows in the wild. Photo by Jen Brown/Into Nature Films
Everyone watched with nervous excitement as those first three sparrows left to explore their new home. More releases are planned throughout the summer and early fall. And now, we are all holding our collective breaths as we wait to see how this recovery strategy pans out.
This bird never ceases to amaze and inspire, and for me, hope springs eternal. Go sparrows, go!