Rebuilding troubled species takes decades of patience and persistence

What does it take to rebuild a depleted species with birds bred in captivity? In the case of one of the longest-running breeding projects, it can take decades of patience and persistence – and hundreds of chicks added to the wild for every one that will go on to thrive.

A Loggerhead Shrike in eastern Canada. Photo by Larry Kirtley.

Our stories in the Washington Post on the rescue mission of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow prompted a call from the research project that has been working for more than 20 years to save the Loggerhead Shrike in eastern Canada. Researchers there have valuable perspective on the laborious process of captive breeding.

“In our case, it’s years in the making,’’ said Jane Hudecki, coordinator for the Shrike conservation breeding program with Wildlife Preservation Canada. “It can be a tough field to work in.’’

Added Hazel Wheeler, the lead biologist on the project: “I’ve certainly read a lot of papers that speak to the long-term investment needed for a successful recovery program.”

There are a number of parallels between the shrike project and the mission to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, which just had its first hatchings produced by captive birds in the wild. While both programs have figured out how to raise, release and establish mating pairs, questions loom around what it will take to restore the wild populations to strength.

Researchers put a transmitter on a Loggerhead Shrike to track its movement and migration. Photo by Sarah Matheson.

Wildlife Preservation Canada has released 1,300 Loggerhead Shrikes since the recovery program’s formation in 1998. Still, only about 20 breeding pairs remain in the areas of Ontario where the local subspecies settle for the spring and summer. “Basically, we’re just keeping the wild population stable,’’ she said.

The Canadian shrikes and Florida grasshopper sparrows are very different species, living on either end of the continent.

The sparrows don’t migrate and are dependent on the unique prairie of Central Florida. They live on insects and grasshoppers and are largely hidden from sight. The shrikes are migratory songbirds that can often be seen perched on branches and wires. They’re famous for their sharp, hooked beaks that help them capture and dismantle their prey. 

A female shrike sits on a nest in captivity. More than 1,300 shrikes have been bred and released in two decades. Photo by Kevin Kerr.

But they are both grassland birds, the hardest hit species because of the loss of habitat, hazards of development and predators. Each has other relative species that are doing better, but both these subspecies are in danger of extinction if the breeding programs don’t succeed.

The rescue missions are funded jointly by nonprofit and government agencies, which makes it a constant struggle to maintain. That’s particularly true in the midst of a global pandemic and economic downturn.

A Loggerhead Shrike’s profile shows off its hooked beak. This, and the top photo, are shrikes from a different subspecies of Loggerhead Shrikes, spotted in Florida. Photo by Anders Gyllenhaal.

“We’re a little nervous here,’’ said Hudecki. “With all the resources that are going to this pandemic, as they should, we don’t know what that’s going to mean for the species at risk.’’

Both programs are constantly pushing for public support, which they see as a key to their mission. If people come to appreciate the place the birds hold, they will be far more likely to accept the decade-long effort to save them, Hudecki said.

“The Loggerhead Shrike is such a unique bird. It has a very important place in the eco system,’’ she said. “If you remove one species from the eco system, it’s like removing a block from a wooden tower. The more species you remove, the more unstable it becomes.

“I always go back to the preservation of species for their inherent value. It’s our responsibility to preserve as much diversity as possible for our children and the generations to come,’’ she said.

Hazel Wheeler, the project’s lead biologist, said that while it’s tempting to argue for protection of species for the value they bring to humans, she’d suggest we look at it a different way.

“I don’t think animals owe us anything. Everything deserves to exist just as we do,” she said. “If we can help them, help fix some of the things we’ve done to harm them, I view that as our duty.”



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