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Florida Grasshopper Sparrows On Brink of Extinction
Fund-raiser Held to Benefit Research and Captive Rearing Efforts; The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida Has Also Established “Sparrow Fund”

December 12, 2017

Florida grasshopper sparrow

Florida grasshopper sparrow
Photo credit: Ken Schneider

Florida International University hosted a fund-raising event in Coconut Grove, Florida, December 7 that featured an exhibit of "The Lost Bird Project" to help create awareness about the desperate plight of Florida grasshopper sparrows.

Noted Florida environmentalist Nathaniel Reed, who was Assistant Secretary of the Interior in the Nixon and Ford administrations (1971-77), made remarks at the event. His entire speech is below:

"We are gathered in this beautiful garden to talk about the most endangered bird in the continental United States, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Fittingly, we have the haunting sculptures of Todd McGrain’s Lost Bird Project as our companions. They serve as a stark reminder of what our forefathers failed to protect. What our forefathers actually destroyed, robbing us of being able to see and marvel at, as they were able to.

They wrote glowing and astonished accounts! Who can’t but shiver when thinking of the prospect of two billion Passenger Pigeons flying overhead? Who isn’t sad that the beautiful and noisy Carolina Parakeet is not in the trees over our heads right now for us to enjoy? Who can see the huge Pileated Woodpecker today and not mourn there was an even larger and showier one, the Ivory Bill?

As William Beebe said, “When the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”

When I was confirmed by the United States Senate in May 1971 a great deal of work had begun to pass a stronger Endangered Species Act of 1969.

The 1969 Act It was an early attempt to face a critical issue of human’s responsibilities to protect the species that inhabited the world around them. It was a serious attempt but woefully inadequate to the acute challenges the nation’s endangered and threatened species were facing from federal, state and private projects that had never considered the habitat of an endangered species during their planning process. The proponents of dams, mines, miles of drainage canals, filling of thousands of acres of wetlands, hundreds of thousands of acres of clear cut forests, massive so called “Public Works projects” like the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Plan never paused to think about the incredible modification of land and water that might endanger a species that was rare or unique to a certain territory that was going to be destroyed by the proposed projects.

Luckily for me, two men that I enlisted to become my deputy assistant secretaries had been members of the Interior Endangered Species team and were well versed in the original act. Simply stated we worked to produce an act that requires the “conservation of species that are endangered or threatened throughout all or a significant portion of their range and the conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend.”

Incredibly in that age of divisive politics during the Nixon administration, many members of a bipartisan congress were sincerely interested in the preservation of endangered species. They assigned key staff to the meetings representing the strong views of their House and Senate members to produce a truly functional act that could make a substantial difference in preserving both species and their essential habitats.

Dr. Lee Talbot, the chief scientist at the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, an acknowledged expert on world-wide endangered species invited experts from the Smithsonian Institute, the nation’s botanical gardens and experts on a vast variety of species who had devoted their lives to study and hopefully preserve some plant or creature. They came to Washington to meet and discuss this rare opportunity for collaboration. Experts such as Dr. Starker Leopold, Dr. Maurice Hornocker, and Dr. Stanley Cain joined a swarm of Ph.D.’s to give their views on the potential vast importance of a successful act. The Garden Club of America and the state Federated Garden Clubs played important roles in supporting protection of endangered plants in the final version of the act.

Section 7 of the Act makes it clear that all federal agencies are bound to comply with the act. The state wildlife agencies were delighted at first to have the “Feds” take on the onerous task of identifying and saving critical habitat, but in time they were encouraged to join forces to protect endangered and threatened species by enacting and enforcing their own effective, collaborative laws. The joint efforts have been the hallmark of the act ever since its beginnings.

I was given the role of testifying for the administration before the appropriate House of Representatives and the Senate committees where my opening remarks seemed to set the stage for the hearings. I emphasized commitment to species that only wanted to share space with mankind. Failure to consider endangered species and their critical habitat would lead to the species’ oblivion. With strong supporters in the House and Senate, the bill passed by large margins and was signed into law by President Nixon on December 28th, 1973.

The critical issue of preventing extinction of any species without a maximum effort to spare it from extinction was a mission with which the American people should be proud to be partners. Recent polls show strong support for the Act. Habitat issues are the most complex of all the decisions that must be made to give a species the opportunity not only to survive but to expand their numbers, whether they be butterflies, plants or grizzly bears.

Through countless struggles to protect the Snail Darter, the Desert Pupfish, the Florida Panther and many others, we have seen the endangered species act succeed!

Our national symbol, the Bald Eagle is no longer on the verge of extinction. California Condors grace the skies of the southwest again. Whooping Cranes, Grizzly Bears, Gray Wolves, even wolverines have all come back.

Alligators used to be endangered and now we are up to our rear ends in them.

A great society can choose to be good stewards or poor, indifferent ones. These successes show our best qualities and we should be proud of our accomplishments. 85% of Americans recently polled voted for continued efforts to preserve the endangered and threatened species from extinction. I doubt that there are many issues that receive such universal support!

Dr. E.O Wilson has exclaimed that the Endangered Species Act was the most important wildlife issue of the 20th century!

I now turn to one of the major endangered species issues facing both Florida’s Fish and Game Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Florida Ecological Services Office. Florida’s most endangered bird is North America’s most endangered bird-- the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow.

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow once numbered in the thousands across Florida’s vast dry prairie. Each spring male sparrow voices could be heard singing to potential mates. Fitting easily in my palm, the sparrow was highly productive, often successfully raising 3, 4 or even 5 sets of nestlings. The females laid 3-5 eggs which hatched incredibly in 11 short days, and their progeny flew from the nest just 9 days later. This tiny songbird has survived hurricanes, floods, droughts, wild fires, changes in habitat, invasive fire ants, intensive cattle operations - all successfully.

There were always major losses of youngsters, but the birds kept up their numbers until relatively recently when the population started collapsing on conservation lands. Despite extraordinary management and research efforts to identify the causes of the population collapse, myriad efforts to improve land management, nest success has not produced any increase in sparrow numbers.

The Sparrow Working Group has dedicated itself to preventing this tiny bird from disappearing from the Florida prairies, but now there are more sparrows in captivity than remain in the wild.

I recently visited the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation where Dr. Paul Reillo and his staff are stewards for a number of endangered species.

They have 31 Grasshopper Sparrows in captivity that hopefully can overcome long odds to produce sufficient young with immunity from a disease driving the wild bird collapse, thereby enabling healthy birds to be resettled in their home prairies. Dr. Reillo’s team has successfully bred the sparrow for two consecutive years, and everyone is encouraged by the birds’ prolific egg laying and high fertility.

Working with the Sparrow Working Group, the captive-breeding effort is now the best and only option to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow.

The major problem is “time”. We must invest in the captive program now and ensure that the birds under Dr. Reillo’s care -- along with any additional birds that can be captured from the prairies next spring -- are afforded optimal conditions for breeding and safety.

Frankly, I believe that this is the only way to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow from extinction.

Whatever is to happen must happen now. Either we identify the disease and find strategies to manage or cure it or the sparrows will be gone. There are ample prairies to return the birds to if we solve this riddle.

The dilemma is not complicated. It is not a habitat issue that is causing the Sparrow numbers to collapse. It is a disease which will be identified in the near future. I am confident that there will be a “cure” discovered quickly to allow captive bred nestlings to survive and multiply.

If we dare to prevent extinction of this tiny bird that is a unique feature of our state, then major funding must be secured well before the spring breeding season commences.

I am committed to the cause of preventing the Grasshopper Sparrow from oblivion. On my “watch” as assistant secretary, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow became extinct despite great efforts. I am forever scared by the loss of this lovely creature which I often saw when I visited Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Collectively, the brightest, most committed members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Game Commission are working closely with deeply committed experts on endangered birds—like Dr. Reillo, Dr. Gray, Dr. Bowman, Dr. Ritchie and the members of the Sparrow Working Group. Together, they are making the last, best effort to preserve this wonderful species.

I can only hope that you agree with this compelling mission to save the sparrow and choose to support Florida International University’s Tropical Conservation Institute and the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation with generous donations.

Will we have the acute pleasure of hearing the song of the male Grasshopper Sparrow again? OR Will there be a pall of silence over thousands of acres of their only homes?

That is our mutual challenge.

Thank you."

The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida started a “sparrow fund” section on the foundation’s website, providing a link,, for anyone to contribute to the survival and recovery of this sparrow.

Contributions will support captive breeding by constructing more enclosures that mimic natural habitat and encourage natural behaviors of the sparrows, care of captive birds, preparations for releasing captive-bred birds back into the wild and mitigating threats such as predators and flooding.


Last updated: June 28, 2018