Tuesday, November 13, 2018
News Roundup

The rarest bird: Florida's grasshopper sparrow may go extinct in 2018

Get ready to say goodbye to Florida’s rarest bird, the grasshopper sparrow. Federal officials say 2018 is the year we’ll learn whether the species will disappear from the wild. The odds are not looking good.

"There’s a significant chance that the birds might go extinct," said Larry Williams, who supervises the South Florida office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The grasshopper sparrow is generally regarded as the most endangered bird in the continental United States. If it goes extinct in spite of the $1 million spent to save it in recent years, it would be the first American bird in three decades to disappear.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Endangered sparrows hatch in captivity, providing hope for species’ future (w/video)

The number living in the wild has dropped dramatically in recent years, due in part to a disease that has zoomed through their dwindling population. Last year biologists found 74 males and 40 females remaining in the Central Florida prairies where the birds nest. This year they found just 53 males and 22 females.

"This is probably the last year that we’ll have the birds in the landscape," said Paul Reillo, founding director of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation at Florida International University.

The disease picking off the birds isn’t one that the sparrows have dealt with before, so their immune systems aren’t equipped to fight it off, experts say. It affects the younger birds, before they turn a year old. Somehow the protozoans causing the illness were somehow turned loose on them the same way pythons were turned loose in the Everglades.

"This seems to be the first time that an introduced species is causing the extinction of a native species," Williams said.

Researchers are racing to uncover where the disease came from and how to combat it.

"We probably have a year to figure it out," Williams said. "Grasshopper sparrows have been where they are in Florida for 3,000 years. For them to go extinct now would be a travesty."

Three years ago, biologists trying to save the grasshopper sparrow launched a captive breeding program. The effort has been successful, according to Andrew Schumann of White Oak Plantation, the North Florida refuge in charge of the program. The first eggs hatched last year, and every other egg that was laid since then has also been successfully hatched.

The next step would be figuring out how to release the birds back into the wild, and helping them learn to live there as wild birds, Schumann said.

There’s only one problem: Some captive-bred sparrows have fallen prey to the disease too. That means that even if the captive-bred birds were reintroduced into the wild, they would be unlikely to survive any more than the wild ones have.

Florida grasshopper sparrows are about 5 inches long, with flat heads, short tails and black and gray feathers that help them hide. They are generally heard more than seen, with a call that consists of two or three weak notes followed by an insect-like buzz, hence their name.

If the grasshopper sparrow can’t be saved, it would be the first bird species in the U.S. to go extinct since a cousin, the dusky seaside sparrow, disappeared in 1987. The last survivor died at Walt Disney World. An effort to save the dusky with a captive breeding program failed when it turned out the only remaining birds were all males.

Grasshopper sparrows were first described in 1902 by a U.S. Army surgeon, Maj. Edgar A. Mearns, when their population was widespread across south-central Florida. By the 1970s, so many of the prairies that form their habitat had been ditched and drained and converted to pastures or sod production that the sparrow population plummeted.

They were added to the federal endangered species list in 1986, when an estimated 1,000 remained. Now so few are left that there has been some debate about capturing the remaining wild birds and keeping them in captivity for their own protection.

The mysterious disease isn’t the only deadly threat the sparrows face. Fire ants, another invasive species, are a peril as well, frequently attacking and killing the sparrows’ young.

If the scientists can’t figure all this out in time, and the grasshopper sparrow winks out in the wild, "that’s a harbinger of things to come for other species," warned Reillo of FIU. "It’s a sign that the functionality of the ecosystem is starting to fall apart."

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

_______

The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida has started a "sparrow fund" section on its website for anyone wanting to contribute to the support of captive breeding and other efforts to save the grasshopper sparrow.

 

Comments
Iowa man, 58, arrested in fatal wrong-way crash into Pinellas bus

Iowa man, 58, arrested in fatal wrong-way crash into Pinellas bus

A man was fatally injured Monday while loading his bike onto the front of a bus on Gulf Boulevard. The wrong-way driver was impaired, deputies say.
Updated: 1 hour ago
What you need to know about new Bucs kicker Cairo Santos

What you need to know about new Bucs kicker Cairo Santos

The Buccaneers signed Cairo Santos on Monday after cutting Chandler Catanzaro.
Updated: 1 hour ago
A wrong-way driver slammed into her on the Howard Frankland Bridge. She's alive and grateful.

A wrong-way driver slammed into her on the Howard Frankland Bridge. She's alive and grateful.

Andrea Rusch, a 24-year-old bartender at Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill in St. Petersburg, has undergone three surgeries but is expected to be discharged from St. Joseph's Hospital this week.
Updated: 1 hour ago

Dr. Delay: is anything happening with 40th Avenue bridge?

It will likely be several years before a new bridge is completed, according to the city.
Updated: 1 hour ago
Seminole Chamber president to retire

Seminole Chamber president to retire

Roger Edelman, who has been president for six years, will stay through the end of the year. He will remain on the city Council.
Updated: 1 hour ago
FHP: Daytona Beach man killed crossing St. Petersburg street

FHP: Daytona Beach man killed crossing St. Petersburg street

The 59-year-old pedestrian walked into the path of an oncoming car, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Updated: 2 hours ago
Argument over dog led to fatal shooting of father, man says in 911 call

Argument over dog led to fatal shooting of father, man says in 911 call

A Tarpon Springs man is in custody after he told 911 operators he shot his father early Tuesday morning.
Updated: 2 hours ago
Lightning pre-game: Get to know the Buffalo Sabres

Lightning pre-game: Get to know the Buffalo Sabres

The Lightning's on the road for the next week, starting with a game tonight against Buffalo at 7:30 p.m.It's the 99th game all-time between the Sabres and Lightning. The Sabres will look to improve on their all-time home record of 25-18-5 agains...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Study: Tampa is a Top 10 area for retirees who like to travel

Study: Tampa is a Top 10 area for retirees who like to travel

Tampa's combination of low taxes and cheap domestic flights make it an attractive choice for retirees.
Updated: 2 hours ago
These Hillsborough WRs go high, go long, around traffic and to the end zone

These Hillsborough WRs go high, go long, around traffic and to the end zone

From nearly any place on the field, Carrollwood Day quarterback Chris Butash can unleash a pass to a number of quality receivers at his disposal.Then the fun begins.After each throw, Butash watches his teammates streak downfield with the ball, leavin...
Updated: 2 hours ago