High hopes for a nearly extinct sparrow as mating season begins

It’s almost mating season for the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, a spring ritual dating back thousands of years on the Florida prairie. But this may be the year that determines whether a rescue mission can turn things around for the country’s most endangered bird.

A year-old grasshopper sparrow just before its release into the grasslands. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

Every week starting this month, researchers are releasing a half dozen or more young sparrows raised in captivity to try and boost breeding in the wild and stabilize the overall population.

The releases are the final step in a long, complex restoration plan that’s taken shape over the two decades since the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow’s sudden collapse. Now researchers will be watching the sparrows’ every move as they hope nature will take its course.

Juan Oteyza, the state research scientist who oversees the project along with Karl Miller, watched the first batch of sparrows disappear into the Florida prairie south of Orlando one morning earlier this month. 

“They’re on their own now,’’ he said.

That isn’t entirely true: It’s up to the sparrows to fan out over the grasslands, find mates, build nests and raise a new batch of chicks. But a team of human helpers will be on hand to monitor the mating rituals, locate the nests and then raise them out of the reach of flood waters. They’ll also encircle the nests with fences to ward off predators. Each new family is tracked daily for five months to see if the sparrow population increases.

Here’s a video of this spring’s first release, taken with a remote camera, so the picture is slightly fuzzy. But you can see the sparrow’s hesitant reaction to the prospect of freedom — followed by a plunge into the grasslands: 

A sparrow leaps off the ledge of its mobile aviary into the prairie.

This is the second mating season since the captive-breeding project that began six years ago. Over the first year, roughly 150 young sparrows were released into the grasslands where most of the remaining birds in the wild live. By the end of that summer, the breeding pairs grew from about 20 to 30, a statistic that shows the long odds these sparrows face in the wild.

Juan Oteyza looks over last seasons’s map of the prairie that pinpoints where every sparrow was nesting.

Researchers hope that this year will show a significant increase in the overall population, fueled by the addition of roughly 100 new sparrows being added into the mix. The 2021 odds are also better because the newly released sparrows are expected to pair up with birds that survived from 2919 and 2020 releases.

“The first year, it was definitely a very positive response,’’ said Oteyza. “We’re really excited to see what happens now.’’

It will take a while to know the outcome. Over the next several weeks, the sparrows will begin to look for mates. Although the sparrows are secretive and hard to track in the wild, the monitoring crew can tell when the birds have paired up because the male birds’ song changes. It goes from a tune intended to lure a female to one expressing pride in having found her.

That’s when a six-person crew headed by Sarah Biesemier swings into action. She’s hoping to find dozens of nests spread across a section of the prairie that extends six to seven square miles. (They don’t reveal exact locations, a further protection for the fragile sparrow project.)

Sarah Biesemier on the prairie south of Orlando, the site of a last-ditch effort to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow.

The breeding begins in April and extends through August. Although the sparrow population is way down, these birds can be very productive breeders. Many will have two or three broods this year, and some as many as four or five.

Note the series of bands on the sparrow’s legs that enable researchers to identify and track each of the sparrows on the prairie.

Sarah and her crew will patrol the prairie every day, watching over their progress and tracking the results that are posted in detail on the shed that acts as an office. Maps list every nest and hatchlings. All of the sparrows are banded in order to identify the individuals.

“Mid to late April is when we’ll expect to see the first nest,’’ Sarah said. “We’ll really start getting busy in May, and then we’ll continue on until August.”

The sparrow team closes up their mobile aviary after the birds have been released onto the prairie. Karl Miller (left) and Juan Oteyza (middle), co-project leaders on the project, and Sarah Biesemier, field crew leader, conduct releases every week through the early spring.

By then, researchers will know how many sparrows will join the mission to save this vanishing species.

There’s a growing library of stories about the project to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Here’s a link to our lengthy story that ran last year in the Washington Post about the mission to save the sparrow. Here’s a recent piece that ran in National Geographic, and here’s a thorough piece from several years ago that ran in the Audubon Society’s magazine. Finally, here’s one of several Flying Lesson’s posts about the progress since the launch of the captive breeding program. You can find others with a season of this website. 


2 responses to “High hopes for a nearly extinct sparrow as mating season begins”

  1. Loved watching them move —ever so tentatively — into the wild. I imagined that’s how most of will feel after Covid finally lifts. Thanks for bringing this fascinating odyssey into such clear focus.

  2. william &michelle Cita Avatar
    william &michelle Cita

    Thanks you for this fgs update, they need all the press they can get. I love the video!

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