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Inside the Struggle to Save North America's Most Endangered Bird


Miami Herald, 03/13/19 North Americas most endangered bird faces a new threat: feuding wildlife managers


"In a letter to researchers last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it planned to shut down a Palm Beach County breeding program, the larger of only two in the nation, amid ongoing concerns over a newly identified parasite making the birds sick. Federal managers want to free some birds and move others to the second facility in North Florida. Researchers fear those actions could spread the parasite and endanger the last wild population." Click here for the complete article

Audubon Magazine, September 2018

We’re looking at imminent extinction of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow in the wild in a year or two,” says Dr. Paul Reillo, the founder and president of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF), whose Jurassic Park about 15 miles straight west of the current U.S. president’s winter White House is home to several dozen critically endangered Mountain Bongo Antelope, more than 80 endangered Red-browed Amazon Parrots, and one of the two sparrow captive-breeding efforts now underway. “This might be the last opportunity to build a platform for the future. This season we’re going to grab onto whatever is left on the table. We should save everything that has a chance of living, because this is the last gasp for this species.”

The September 2018 issue of Audubon Magazine features the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow on the cover, with an in-depth look at the heroic efforts of RSCF and the USFWS to save this critically endangered Florida endemic. Click here for the complete article, written by Audubon Vice President, Content Mark Jannot and featuring stunning photographs by Mac Stone.

Into Nature Films short video about the FGSP program.

Florida Field Journal. Summarizing FGSP findings from the 2016 breeding season. Courtesy of Darryl Saffer.

FGSP Vocalizations - RSCF
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Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

MAY 2016


A Glimmer of Hope—Critically Endangered Sparrows Hatch at RSCF!


One of North America’s most endangered birds teeters on the edge of extinction. The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (FGSP), a ground-nesting songbird found only in central Florida’s prairie, likely numbers less than 150 in the wild. A cluster of these tiny birds resides at the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF) in Loxahatchee, the only facility to house the species and tasked with the daunting job of developing a captive-recovery strategy to help save it from extinction. On May 9th and 10th, conservation history was made when four eggs laid in captivity at RSCF hatched, producing the first captive-bred Florida Grasshopper Sparrows.

“The first captive breeding of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow sparks hope for this critically endangered Florida endemic,” said Paul Reillo, founding president of RSCF. “With wild populations declining, our first priority is to prevent extinction — which, sadly, was the fate of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow's close relative, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, 30 years ago.  This first captive clutch is exciting and humbling, providing an intimate window into the sparrow's secretive world. It also reminds us that recovery will take many years, concerted, coordinated effort, and substantial funding.“


The project is a coordinated effort between several partners, including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, whose biologists spend countless hours on the prairie searching for nests and monitoring the dwindling population of wild sparrows.


“This is truly a collaborative effort with the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group and other partners.  Kudos to Dr. Paul Reillo and his team at RSCF for the outstanding work they’re doing on this captive-breeding program that the Service is funding,” said Larry Williams, State Ecological Services Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


While the chicks give scientists a reason to celebrate, Reillo points out much uncertainty remains. After all, four chicks is a long way from recovery for a species on the brink of extinction. Conservationists agonized for years over how to stop the plunge in the tiny songbird’s population for reasons still unknown. In a desperate attempt to save the species, officials from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave approval last year to take a small number into captivity.


“The first captive Florida Grasshopper Sparrow breeding illuminates why captive breeding can be an essential conservation tool,” Reillo said. “We can prevent extinctions, buy time to develop recovery options, and discover fresh solutions to problems.  This is a vital part of a comprehensive species-recovery program.”


The amount of effort behind this project is worthy of note. RSCF has a dedicated animal care specialist, Stephanie Howard, who works with the birds daily. In the event chicks need to be hand-reared, staff work tirelessly, feeding chicks every hour from sunrise to sunset. Specialized diets are prepared several times a day for the captive colony, and Timberline Fisheries is working closely with RSCF to ensure the highest quality nutrition is always available to the birds in the form of a wide variety of insects. Dyson Industries has provided quiet, bladeless fans to cool the enclosed sparrow buildings. All enclosures are designed and built by RSCF staff, including new, soft-mesh enclosures that can house a growing population of sparrows.


Beyond the many zoological hurdles facing the captive-breeding effort, funding is arguably the greatest challenge. Researchers are relying on a series of grants to cover the nearly $120,000 in annual costs to sustain the captive-breeding program. But as Reillo points out, the financial cost is minor when compared to the cost of losing a species forever.


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