Agencies Tout |Breeding Success in Florida

     WASHINGTON (CN) — State and federal partners working in collaboration to save the extremely endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow are celebrating their first captive-bred hatchlings as a major conservation breakthrough. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the breeding success with all the glee of new parents, and rightfully so, as the little sparrow is one of the nation’s most endangered birds.
     “This bird is teetering on the brink of extinction. There are probably less than 150 left. We’re working with our partners, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), to save it. This is a huge milestone in those ongoing efforts,” Larry Williams, State Ecological Services Supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said.
     In addition to Williams, other members of the research team include Dr. Erin Ragheb from the FWC, Dr. Paul Reillo and his team at the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation where the chicks were hatched, and Mary Peterson and Sandra Sneckenberger, the Service’s lead biologists in the recovery effort. The working group also includes members from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Archbold Biological Station, Avon Park Air Force Range, the University of Maryland- Baltimore County, White Oak Conservation Center and Tall Timbers Research Station.
     “This breakthrough is great news because the Florida grasshopper sparrow couldn’t be more vulnerable,” Sneckenberger said. “Unfortunately, last week’s storms flooded most of the wild birds’ first nest attempts of the season. That brought the need for this captive-breeding program into even sharper focus. The four hatchlings are hopeful signs that bode well for producing options for recovery.”
     The birds were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1986. They are threatened by loss of their grassland habitat from clearing for crops, ranching, and poorly-timed fire management burns, predation by fire ants, which attack nestlings, and extreme weather events.
     The fire ant predation is a particular problem because the birds build their nests in shallow depressions in the ground. The top rim of the 4 inch nest is at ground level, usually hidden in a clump of vegetation, and is covered by a partial dome of nesting material. “The breeding success of ground-nesting grassland birds is usually less than 50 percent, with most nest loss attributed to predation,” the agency said.
     The Florida sparrow is found only in the dry prairie regions of central and south Florida, and it does not migrate. It is one of four subspecies of grasshopper sparrows, which derive their name from their calls, which are similar to the buzzing sound grasshoppers make, according to Audubon Florida.
     Although the first nest attempt in the breeding program failed, this second nest hatched all four eggs and the mother bird is appropriately feeding and caring for the nestlings. They are expected to fly at about nine days old and will be fully independent in about three weeks, the agency said.
     “This captive-breeding program might buy us time to unravel the compounding factors causing the sparrows to decline so rapidly. We seem to have good habitat that’s not being used. That makes us think the population levels may have dropped so low that they’ve lost the power to recover,” Williams said. “Below certain population thresholds there can be combinations of predation, disease, genetic inbreeding, and gaps in social behaviors that make it difficult for a species to rebound.”

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