Help is on the way for the nation’s most endangered bird

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, the nation’s most endangered species, is suddenly getting the kind of support that could turn things around for a bird that a year ago seemed destined for extinction.

A newly released Florida Grasshopper Sparrow steps from its cage. Top photo of sparrow singing by Tory Hartley-Cox. Others by Anders Gyllenhaal.

An unusual consortium of players today announced that a huge stretch of the rare grasslands that the sparrows rely on will be set aside permanently for wildlife. The tract is home to nearly half the remaining population of a species that had dwindled down to just a few dozen birds.

The announcement comes not long after the completion of a breeding season that boosted the population by adding hundreds of sparrows born in captivity. As researchers analyze the results, they’re learning how to fine tune the captive breeding project and possibly expand it for this coming year.

“These are preliminary results, but they have been very encouraging,’’ said Juan Oteyza, the research biologist with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Research Institute that oversees the campaign to save the sparrow.

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is a symbol of the state’s unique inland prairie that has all but disappeared as rapid growth reshaped the landscape. Over the past decade, the sparrow population dropped to perilously low numbers that gave it the distinction of being the most likely bird in the U.S. to go extinct. Researchers aren’t sure what all is contributing to the bird’s sharp decline, but the loss of habitat is the biggest factor — and the toughest to address.

That’s the reason today’s announcement by the University of Florida, Ducks Unlimited and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida is a significant step. The 27,000-acre tract of wetlands and grasslands south of Orlando was donated by the family of the founder of the Subway chain, led by Elisabeth DeLuca, who heads the Frederick A. DeLuca Foundation.

The sprawling tract will serve a long list of conversation purposes.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

The land will be managed not just for the sparrow but for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker and many species of waterfowl. The University of Florida will use the land to help train future researchers, and the tract will be open for duck hunting, which helps pay for conservation measures.

The donation of land also shows that the push to gather public support for a small brown bird hardly anyone ever sees is gaining momentum.

The captive-breeding project costs about $1.2 million a year, half of which comes from non-profit organizations and donations and half from state and federal funds. Much of the private fundraising falls to the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida  an independent non-profit that has raised or arranged donations worth more than half a million dollars in the past seven years.

Michelle Ashton, who directs communications for the foundation, said that while the sparrow doesn’t have the appeal of eagles or ospreys, the bird is developing a following all over the country.

“We have a core group of contributors who are personally connected to the cause,’’ she said. “It’s not a group number in the thousands, but it’s the most committed group of repeat donors.’’

Contributors range from several big companies, such Bass Pros Shop and outdoor retailer Cabela’s that helped cover set-up costs of 27,000-acre land donation, to individual donors. The sparrow has also drawn support from nearly 150 smaller donors over the past three years.

Ashton loves the story of a couple from Nebraska, Bill and Michelle Cita, who were struck by the sparrow’s plight and began donating every year. Bill, a welder, and Michelle, who does the housekeeping and laundry at a nursing home, say they plan to contribute every year.

Bill Cita. Photo by Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida

“I started reading a little bit about it. My wife and I started talking about,” said Cita, who lives in the small eastern Nebraska town of Waverly and say it doesn’t matter that he’s not likely to see this bird. “I’ve always rooted for the underdog and he’s kind of an underdog.’’

Since the first contributions to the foundation, the Citas have followed the sparrow’s progress and encouraging news from the past year. “It’s nice to feel to be part of something,’’ he said. “People working to save the grasshopper sparrow.”

The presence of a sparrow population on the land that’s being donated is a boost to the consortium of state and federal agencies, non-profits and university researchers who’ve been working for decades to rebuild the species. The project has focused its captive-bred sparrow release on a site not far from the donated tract. They’ll now work on rebuilding two segments of sparrows and will decide in the coming months how to support both of them.

Breeding the birds in captivity is a tricky endeavor. If the birds are released too soon, many succumb to the elements. If they wait too long, the birds will struggle to adapt to life as a wild sparrow.

The project is developing the data to get that timing right. This past year, the younger the released sparrows, the more success they had mating up with wild sparrows, building nests and raising chicks.

Juan Oteyza checks over a captive-bred sparrow before release earlier this year.

The younger sparrows seemed to do a better job of blending in with wild sparrows and learning from them. “They move around together. They’re not too territorial yet,’’ said Oteyza. “We think this has important value for the (captive-bred) sparrows to learn to be sparrows.’’

Over the past year or so, the project had released about 250 captive-bred sparrows into the grasslands, many of which don’t survive. By the end of this breeding season, researchers said the total population was pushed up to 112 sparrows, with 34 breeding pairs and about 85 fledglings produced in the wild.

The project will release another 45 sparrows in February and March of the coming year. When the next breeding season starts that spring, Oteyza said they hope to see even higher birth rates in the wild between the newly arrived and the higher overall population.

One of the young captive-bred grasshopper sparrows that helped boost the Central Florida population.


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