What the Grasshopper Sparrow is teaching us as it skirts extinction

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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For the next month or so, biologists from a coalition of wildlife agencies will be standing on the sidelines of a grassy prairie in Central Florida, pacing like worried relatives in a hospital waiting room.

A captive-bred sparrow steps from its cage.

They’ll be peering through binoculars and listening for bird calls for signs of the revival of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, whose total population has fallen to a just 30 breeding pairs.

Our article on the campaign to save the sparrow runs this week in the Washington Post. It’s a story about the mysterious decline of one of Florida endemic species and how a consortium of state, federal and non-profit agencies is staging a biological intervention sparrows bred in research centers to hold off extinction.

Sarah Biesemier (left) and Juan Oteyza, state biologists who oversee the project, arrive at the prairie with a carrying case full of sparrows.

It’s also a story about what’s happening on the front lines of the world of birds in a time of extraordinary change. On the one hand, researchers have built more tools, they’ve developed better research practices and they know more about birds like this sparrow than ever before. On the other hand, the threats to many species are unprecedented. A study in the journal Science a few months ago found that a third of North America’s breeding bird population has vanished in the last 50 years.

We came home from weeks in Central Florida, after visiting the research centers and talking to dozens of scientists, with a question nobody could answer very well: Do we have the collective wherewithal, and the financial and political capital, to put this kind of rescue mission together for the growing number of species certain to need it in the future?

Every grasshopper sparrow on the prairie is identified and tracked by four bands on its legs to follow their progress.

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is not the most likely candidate to win the kind of scientific full-court press it’s getting. It’s a small, brown, nondescript bird that’s never seen by most people. It’s found only on the Florida prairie, a unique environment slowly evaporating as the state grows. As a brand, this sparrow is on the far end of the appeal spectrum from such conservation successes as the Bald Eagle, the California Condor and the Osprey.

And yet, an ambitious plan has come together on behalf of this bird. It’s powered by state and federal researchers, some of whom have devoted their careers to studying Florida’s birds, and it’s supported by such non-profits as Florida Audubon and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida (which just announced a grant for this project.)  It is all the more impressive given the anti-environmental streak now running through modern politics.

The consortium makes a persuasive case that the grasshopper sparrow should be saved: It is one of the symbols of the Florida environment. With its haunting song and its place on nature’s ground floor, it’s a key piece of the puzzle of the biosphere we rely on. “The grasshopper sparrow is one of Florida’s flagship birds,” said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Flying Lesson: The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is a harbinger of a future in which many species are threatened with extinction. Researchers have built an ambitious rescue plan to save this bird, but is there enough public and political support to undertake missions like this for dozens of birds at the same time?

As researchers put more and more effort into studying the sparrow’s decline, they learned things that could help save this and other birds that they would otherwise never have known.

“The grasshopper sparrow is part of Florida’s heritage,” says Reed Bowman, a researcher at the Archbold Biological Center and a leader of the project.

The sparrows are both a product of and reliant upon the peculiarities of their prairie environment. They need the low-cut grass and brush kept in place by routine fires. They don’t live long — just three or four years — and so they’ve become breeding machines that can pump out four and five broods a season. They in turn help feed the rest of the food chain. One observer called them the “potato chip’’ of the Florida prairie because so many hawks, snakes, skunks and fire ant swarms feast of them.

For tens of thousands of years, all this worked fine for the sparrows because they were so plentiful.

The aviary on the Florida prairie used to prepare captive-bred sparrows for release.

But the balance of nature has been thrown out of kilter by habitat loss, climate change, extreme weather and flooding cycles and the invasion of non-native plants and animals. For reasons that biologists are still trying to fully understand, certain bird species are able to adapt to all this while others are pushed toward extinction.

The grasshopper sparrow is one of the unlucky ones. Unless the experiment to revive them with captive-bred birds, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow will be the first bird to go extinct in the U.S since a Florida cousin, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, disappeared 33 years ago.

State biologist Juan Oteyza checks over a Florida Grasshopper Sparrow before its release this spring.

The story of the sparrow isn’t getting the attention it should. Even before the corona virus came to dominate the news, the plight of the sparrow was all but ignored in the U.S. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to delve into the rescue mission as it comes to a critical juncture with this spring’s breeding season. Almost a decade of work has led up to the release of captive sparrows in hopes they’ll mate with wild sparrows and start to rebuild the population.

The story is about more than the grasshopper sparrow. This bird is the harbinger of what is ahead for many species.

That’s why it’s worth understanding the sparrow story and recognizing that it’s possible to pull an endangered species back from the brink. It’s possible, but it requires a level of  intense and expensive biological engineering this sparrow project illustrates.  And if this country is going to be prepared for the species now showing signs of the same declines as the sparrow did, now is the time to be gearing up for the work ahead.

 

 

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