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.
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.
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?
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.