The decades-long push to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, which was on course to be the next bird to go extinct in the U.S., got its first hopeful news in years this week: An experiment to restore the sparrow population with captive-bred birds has produced its first fledglings in the wild.
More than a dozen chicks and fledglings, along with eggs in a number of nests, have been spotted in the grasslands south of Orland where a coalition of agencies is staging a last-ditch rescue mission. “We’re very excited,” said Juan Oteyza, the state biologist who oversees the project. “It’s not only working, but it’s working well.”
The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow’s population dropped to just 30 breeding pairs in the four Central Florida locations where the last of the species lives. That prompted an ambitious campaign to start breeding captive sparrows to release into the wild. Among the questions that loomed over the effort was whether the birds would have the innate abilities to survive and whether they would be capable of breeding and raising a new generation of sparrows.
For weeks, researchers have been watching the stretch of Florida prairie where about 150 of the sparrows were released last year and this spring. The birds are tagged with a set of bands that identify them, so the staffers can track every one of the individual birds that hold the key to the species’ future.
The birds, most of them about a year old, began to match up with mates, some with wild sparrows and some with other captive-bred birds. Researchers could tell from their songs that the birds had started mating. Then they began to find nests with eggs in them. The first six or so fledglings are now beginning to leave the nests and head out on their own, said Oteyza, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
Our story on the arduous path leading up to the release of the sparrows appeared two weeks ago in The Washington Post (and here’s a companion piece on the unique nature of the project that ran on Flying Lessons.). The effort is part of a number of scientific interventions around the world to stave off precipitous declines in various species. The sparrow, though a small, nondescript bird without much star power, is a symbol of the unique Florida grasslands.
This isn’t the first captive-bred experiment in the U.S., but the sparrow’s declines has made it a difficult case that scientists admit they still don’t fully understand.