Inside the Struggle to Save Florida’s Most Endangered Bird

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The Fall 2017 issue of Audubon Magazine features the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow on the cover, with an in-depth look at the heroic efforts of RSCF and the USFWS to save this critically endangered Florida endemic. In “Inside the Struggle to Save North America’s Most Endangered Bird,” Marc Jannot writes:

North America’s most endangered bird hardly qualifies as “charismatic megafauna.” It is not a big sexy animal, not the kind you’d see on a state flag. It’s a tiny bird that lives on something in central Florida called the dry prairie, which feels vast when you’re standing in the middle of it but which today covers maybe a tenth of its historic extent. The dry prairie is also home to spotted skunks, and snakes, and red imported fire ants. And sometimes cows. And an unknown but presumably growing number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and parasites and other pathogens. All of which are bad for the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. When you’re just a few inches long and you live for maybe four years and you’re the potato chip of the food chain and everybody’s out to eat you, you’ve got troubles. [. . .]

Let’s stipulate this: There is something fundamentally wrong-feeling and queasy-making about attempting to save a bird from extinction by capturing a small but significant number of its last remaining healthy wild specimens and putting them in what is, no matter how roomy or well-festooned with appropriate vegetation, a prison. It’s the sort of Sophie’s Choice that leaves biologists and all lovers of wildlife feeling gutted. As one participant declared at some point during the two-day workshop, “I would rather have this species go extinct than to see it in a cage.”

But others in the room weren’t willing to adopt that absolutist position. The members of the working group were, after all, acutely mindful of—and in some cases had experienced firsthand—the most recent previous extinction of a North American bird 30 years ago, when the Dusky Seaside Sparrow blinked off the landscape right here in Florida. In that case, by the time the decision was made to deploy the last resort—to bring some sparrows in for captive breeding—the last resort had left the station: The only wild Dusky Seaside Sparrows to be found were five unpaired males, and soon the Dusky Seaside Sparrow was no more. The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group was determined not to repeat the mistake.

“These are wild birds; we want them in the wild,” says Reed Bowman, who is the director of avian ecology at Archbold and who was at the 2014 workshop. “There’s a huge amount of uncertainty [with captive breeding]. But one thing I can tell you is certain is that if they go extinct in the wild and we don’t have a captive-breeding program, they will be extinct.”

[. . .] “We’re looking at imminent extinction of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow in the wild in a year or two,” says Dr. Paul Reillo, the founder and president of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF), whose Jurassic Park about 15 miles straight west of the current U.S. president’s winter White House is home to several dozen critically endangered Mountain Bongo Antelope, more than 80 endangered Red-browed Amazon Parrots, and one of the two sparrow captive-breeding efforts now underway. “This might be the last opportunity to build a platform for the future. This season we’re going to grab onto whatever is left on the table. We should save everything that has a chance of living, because this is the last gasp for this species.”​ [. . .]

[Photo above by Mac Stone: “A Florida Grasshopper Sparrow calls from a perch on a private ranch in south Florida. Biologists use these vocalizations to help locate inconspicuous nests throughout the year.” From http://www.audubon.org/magazine/fall-2017/inside-race-save-florida-grasshopper-sparrow-north.]

Click here for the complete article, written by Audubon Vice President, Content Mark Jannot and featuring stunning photographs by Mac Stone.

For more information about the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Recovery Project, click here.

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