Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Recovery
In an effort to prevent the extinction of the critically endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus sannarum floridanus), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners are establishing a captive breeding program for the species. Researchers and biologists believe that if current population trends for the bird continue the species could go extinct in three to five years. Researchers believe less than 100 of the songbirds remain in the wild.
The Florida grasshopper sparrow (FGSP) is a non-migratory subspecies with a historic range limited to the prairie region of south-central Florida. Over 80 percent of the bird’s habitat has been lost in recent decades with much of the remaining prairie degraded by fire suppression and encroachment by trees and shrubs.
The captive breeding program will consist of trained volunteers and staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the Department of Environmental Protection going into the field during April, May and June at specified locations looking for eggs in nests. When and if eggs are found, some of them will be collected and taken to the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, Fla. There, they will be placed in incubators, where the hope is hatchlings will emerge in 11-13 days, after which around-the-clock care will be provided to facilitate their survival. Ultimately, the hatchlings will be kept in captivity in the hopes that they will mate and breed.
Currently, RSCF is housing a small group of hand-reared FGSP fledglings from abandoned or damaged nests discovered by USFWS staff.
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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Into Nature Films short video about the FGSP program.
RSCF director, Dr. Paul Reillo, presents and in-depth discussion about the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Project, summarizing findings from the 2016 breeding season. Courtesy of Darryl Saffer.
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