South Florida Ecological Services Field Office
Southeast Region

 

News and Features
Header Divider

Service and Partners Working to Stave off Extinction of Florida Grasshopper Sparrows
Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida Establishes a “Sparrow Fund”


December 18, 2017

Florida grasshopper sparrow

Florida grasshopper sparrow
Photo credit: White Oak Conservation

VERO BEACH, Florida – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and its partners are working to stave off the extinction of a small, ground-nesting song bird that has lived on the prairies of South and Central Florida for thousands of years. If current trends continue, Florida grasshopper sparrows could disappear from the landscape in two to three years.

In 2017, these sparrows reached a record low of about 75 wild birds. Trends suggest there will be less than 40 wild birds in 2018. Only about 50 birds are being sustained in two captive populations. Restoring a self-sustaining wild population seems unlikely, but groundbreaking scientific strides are underway in an effort to beat the odds.

“We still don’t know exactly why the population is declining, but we are concerned disease is a big factor,” said Larry Williams, the Service’s Florida State Supervisor for Ecological Services. “Extinction is a real possibility, but we’ve got to try to save this species.”

The Service and partners have invested more than $1 million into saving Florida grasshopper sparrows since 2012. Major scientific breakthroughs have occurred thanks to that funding:

  • captive breeding -- Florida grasshopper sparrows were successfully bred in captivity for the first time ever;
  • habitat management -- Refined timing of prescribed fire has lengthened the nesting season and boosted nesting success; and
  • predator management -- Fences to exclude predators have raised nesting success from eight to 84 percent.

But in spite of those breakthroughs, sparrow numbers continue falling.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and Archbold Biological Station are leading monitoring efforts and establishing protective fences around nests to reduce predation and boost numbers. The White Oak Conservation Holdings and the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF) -- with strong support from the Service -- have started two captive breeding facilities aimed at producing sparrows for release back into the wild.

Since 2012, private ranchers and land stewards including Avon Park Air Force Range, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area -- have been managing dry prairie to optimize habitat for the sparrows. “One of the private ranches has the second largest population of these sparrows in the wild,” Williams said.

Partners are determined not to let the grasshopper sparrow meet the same fate as the dusky seaside sparrow, which went extinct in captivity in 1987. The initial reasons for these species’ declines are similar: loss and fragmentation of habitat, combined with suppression of fires needed to maintain habitat. Florida grasshopper sparrows are also impacted by red fire ants, which were introduced from Brazil around 1940.

“The dusky seaside sparrow, which was unique to Florida, just like the Florida grasshopper sparrow, was the last bird to go extinct in the continental United States,” Williams noted. “No one wants to see that happen again.”

And while these efforts are geared toward Florida grasshopper sparrows, Andrew Schumann, White Oak’s Avian Collection Manager, says what’s being learned about these sparrows will be helpful with other species across the United States.

“The stuff we’re finding out has implications for many different songbirds and other species. This isn’t going to be the only species that declines and is reliant on a captive breeding and reintroduction program,” he said. “Even if we do our absolute best to conserve the Florida grasshopper sparrows and it still goes extinct, what’s next? Is it the Bachman’s sparrow? What we’re learning now could make a difference.”

Ultimately, Schumann believes that they’ll find success with the captive breeding program because he’s seen that these birds can “crank out chicks” in a captive setting. His overriding concern is that the cause of the rapid decline in the wild is still unknown. “We’ll work out the kinks in the captive breeding program, but we’re never going to succeed until and unless we find out why the population is declining,” he said.

“The wild situation is desperate,” said Dr. Paul Reillo, the RSCF’s director. “Therefore, captive breeding, which is always a last resort, is where we should focus our efforts before we run out of time.”

Captive breeding efforts were started in 2014 with Service funding, but nobody had bred Florida grasshopper sparrows in captivity before, so species-specific techniques are being worked out.

The past year of captive breeding has been beset by losses to the captive population from diseases that may or may not be affecting the wild population.

“With captive breeding there are always challenges and the only way to work them out is by trial and error. Research has been initiated to determine the specific strains of the diseases, evaluate their presence in the wild population and to find solutions,” Williams said.

So far the partners have broken new ground by working out incubation settings, proper diet, and housing strategies to help encourage natural “wild” behavior. They’ve also identified and begun to treat for parasites.

Captive breeding programs have successfully rescued species from the brink of extinction--including the peregrine falcon, Puerto Rican parrot and black-footed ferret.

So, coupled with the fact that a recent look at genetics showed that these sparrows’ current genetic diversity is similar to its historic genetic diversity, captive breeding shows real promise as these sparrows have a high reproductive potential. The Service is collaborating with scientists and other stakeholders to work out the techniques. Funding for all partners, however, is limited.

Last spring, The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida started a “sparrow fund” section on the foundation’s website, providing a link, https://www.fishwildlifeflorida.org/florida-grasshopper-sparrow-fund/, for anyone to contribute to the survival and recovery of this sparrow.

As of mid-November, this fund had approximately $10,500. 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.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit www.fws.gov. Connect with our Facebook page at https://facebook.com/usfwssoutheast, follow our tweets at https://twitter.com/usfwssoutheast, watch our YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/usfws and download photos from our Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwssoutheast.

 

Last updated: December 28, 2017