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

A wild grasshopper sparrow perches on the hand of a federal biologist. If the species goes extinct, it will be the first one in the U.S. to disappear since the last dusky seaside sparrow died at Disney World in 1987.
A wild grasshopper sparrow perches on the hand of a federal biologist. If the species goes extinct, it will be the first one in the U.S. to disappear since the last dusky seaside sparrow died at Disney World in 1987.

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 craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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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.

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