The wildlife managers who bred more than 200 Florida Grasshopper Sparrows in a laboratory setting over the past two years knew they faced a tricky question when it came to releasing the birds into the wild this spring:
Would they know how to act like grasshopper sparrows?
Could they sing the sparrow’s unique courting song? Would they know how to hide from hawks? Would they have the instincts to build nests, mate with wild sparrows and raise their young together?
The captive-breeding experiment is the culmination of a decades-long project to revive the most endangered species in the U.S.. Only 30 pairs of the sparrows remained in the wild when the team decided they had no choice but to try producing chicks in captivity, then introducing them back into the wild in hopes they’d multiply.
The answers to all their questions came pouring in over the course of the breeding season that is now coming to a close.
The birds not only mastered the routines of the mating season, they gave birth to a new generation of Florida Grasshopper Sparrows over the summer. ( Forty-two birds were born from captive-bred birds and altogether 64 were born from wild and captive-bred birds.) Almost all have now left the nest and flown off to begin life on their own.
“We’re very happy with what we saw this first season,’’ said Juan Oteyza, the research biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Institute that oversees the project. “It seems to be paying off.’’
Craig Faulhaber, avian conservation coordinator for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said it was hard to tell the captive-bred from the wild sparrows. “They showed all the normal behaviors,” he said. “They bred successfully. They took care of their young. They acted just like wild sparrows.”
Flying Lesson: The project to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow has been full of discoveries for researchers. They’ve learned what it takes to breed birds in captivity, protect fragile nests from harm and how to begin to replenished the depleted population. It’s not yet clear if the project will be successful, but already the lessons are proving valuable to help understand the woes of the grassland birds like the sparrow.