Scientists warn Florida grasshopper sparrows on the brink of extinction

07/26/12 Olivia Kabat
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Scientists are warning that a type of sparrow native to Florida is on the brink of extinction. There is an emergency effort to save Florida grasshopper sparrows before it’s too late.

Florida grasshopper sparrows have been on the endangered species for 26 years. Dr. Reed Bowman, Director of the Avian Ecology Program at Archbold Biological Station says this subspecies has been endangered for such a long time because the vast majority of land on which it depends has disappeared.

“It’s one of the species that depends on Florida dry prairie and the loss of habitat started a long time ago. We don’t need research to understand why the habitat is decreasing; it’s been decreasing because of human development. But there has been a tremendous amount of research on why the populations that exist on the remaining and protected habitat are still declining.”

According to Bowman almost all the Florida grasshopper sparrows have disappeared from Avon Park Air Force Range in Polk County. The last remaining birds are found on two conservation properties, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State park in Okeechobee County and Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in Osceola County.

“In 1998 we hadrelatively healthy populations of birds on all three of the public lands on which they occurred. And starting about that time we saw a very rapid decline in the number of birds at Avon Park Air Force Range. However, just in the last four years the rate onthose other two places has also gotten quite steep. Birds are essentially extirpated from Avon Park Air Force Range. So in 1998 we had 140 males which mean we had 280 birds because we assume every male is paired with a female, and in 2012 we only had one.”

Bowman says other findings show that habitat loss is not the only factor contributing to the recent decline in Florida grasshopper sparrows.

“There have been exotic introductions in the prairie such as the fire ant. Fire ants are relatively common in dry prairie and we know that they prey on the eggs and nestlings of Florida grasshopper sparrows, we’ve seen it.”

Bowman is part of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group. He says the group insists more research needs to be done to better understand these birds and their habitat. But in the meantime there is talk of taking more drastic measures to prevent extinction of the subspecies.

“We proposed captive breeding programs. Really the only organization that can fund that and permit it is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and they’re not entirely on board with that yet. We think we’re working towards that but I think ultimately that’s not a solution but one way to keep the species from going extinct while we try and understand how to manage their habitat.”

Bowman believes many of the problems that face endangered species are a result of human activity. He says if people understand how to change their behavior there can be hope for the few Florida Grasshopper Sparrows that remain.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Florida Grasshopper Sparrows

Florida Audubon

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