The Most Endangered Bird in the Continental U.S.

Photograph by Joel Sartore
Photograph by Joel Sartore
Photograph by Joel Sartore
Photograph by Joel Sartore

The Most Endangered Bird in the Continental U.S.

The fight to save the Florida grasshopper sparrow inspires all who love wildlife. 

By Ted Williams
Published: March-April 2013

Predawn, April 8, 2012: Cold and stiff, I crawl out of my tent in Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park--a wilderness island in the sea of asphalt, cement, and drained agricultural land that is south-central Florida. The International Space Station, brighter than the morning star, sweeps across the Milky Way. And far to the west a ragged line of cabbage palms and live oaks is backlit by the nearly full moon. The birds we're after sing in the early morning, so we need to get moving.

Three hours later, what birders who aren't fast enough with their field glasses would call an LBJ (little brown job) is in my right hand. Instructed by biologists Paul Miller of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Sandra Sneckenberger of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I have him in the "photographer's grip"--his legs between my middle finger and pointer, my thumb against his bent knees. His tail is short, his breast buff, his back dark gray and streaked with brown. There's a splash of yellow at the wing joint, ochre stripes over his eyes. From a distance he hadn't looked like much. Now I can see that he's gorgeous.

I'm holding one of the last Florida grasshopper sparrows. Despite extensive habitat restoration, they're on a toboggan run to oblivion. And unless managers can figure out and reverse what's wrong in the next year or two, this bird will almost surely be gone--the first known bird extinction in the continental United States since the loss, in 1987, of the dusky seaside sparrow, once native to the marshes of Florida's Merritt Island and St. John River Valley.

The Florida grasshopper sparrow is one of 12 subspecies, though evidence suggests that the other 11 grasshopper sparrows evolved from it.

There are probably fewer than 200 Florida grasshopper sparrows left, and as of this writing they're restricted to the state park and the nearby Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. The population at Avon Park Air Force Range, where researchers had counted 130 singing males 14 years ago, apparently winked out in 2012. Counts of singing males at the state park dropped from 150 in 2002 to 14 in 2012 and at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area from 150 in 2008 to 60 in 2012. It's difficult to catch or even inventory the females because they are shy, songless, and indistinguishable from the males unless they're in hand during the breeding season, when one can see that they lack an engorged "cloacal protuberance" (bird version of a penis).

At 54,000 acres, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park comprises slightly more than half the bird's remaining habitat--the Florida dry prairie, arguably the most endangered, least studied, and most biologically diverse grassland on the planet. Before settlement there may have been 1.2 million acres.

Most of this remnant habitat has been degraded by fire suppression and by aliens such as feral hogs and fire ants. But the Florida DEP, with financial help from the Fish and Wildlife Service, is restoring it with prescribed burns and removal of the invaders. And the service is putting together a 150,000-acre national wildlife refuge that will target the Florida grasshopper sparrow as a major priority. Finally, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group--state and federal managers and biologists who advise the Fish and Wildlife Service--has convinced the agency to authorize captive breeding.

All this, however, may not be enough. If we lose the Floridagrasshopper sparrow, will Americans for the most part notice or care? The answer, alas, is no. Most everyone who reads Audubon cares deeply. We know that species and subspecies matter, but we have trouble putting that knowledge into words for folks like, say, Manuel Lujan, who in 1990, in his capacity as Secretary of the Interior, indignantly inquired: "Do we have to save every subspecies?"

There is no clear line between species and subspecies, and the demarcations keep changing according to human discovery, assumption, and opinion. Both are equally precious, as the framers of our Endangered Species Act understood. Human-caused extinction of either is frightening and unspeakably sad. To borrow the words of naturalist/explorer William Beebe, "When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."

 

Our male had flown into a mist net we'd set up in his territory. Grasshopper sparrows got their name because the male's faint, high-pitched vocalization sounds like the buzz of a grasshopper. This may be an adaptation to delude predators and still allow territorial defense. Miller and Sneckenberger have young ears, so they had been able to hear 160184057 singing. Audubon Florida biologist Paul Gray and I, standing beside them, could not.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

Grass Hopper Sparrow and all Endangered Animals

Once they are gone, they are lost Forever! Whether Due to Population take over or all the Chemicals we spray all over the Earh! But Not are Tax Dollors! So badly needed for the IRS's Stupid Idiot Shuffle (50,000) to teach their agents how to dance! Or the many scheduled conferences they really don't need , scheduled close together, or the Lavish Suites ( 2500.00 a night for there conferences, and the free Airline Tickets to get them there) Or the Lavish paychecks and freebees they write for themselves! Our Tax Dollars are being spent, anyway they choose to! Cut all that out, and spend some on Protecting Endangered Species! It wouldn't be noticed, compared to how it is spent now!

grasshopper endangered bird

Sorry folks, Not a penny of tax money for endangered species. If members are so concerned let them pay their own money. Don't ask others who do not believe in their cause to pay precious tax dollars. We have a huge deficit and of course, congress is unwilling to list priorities for money coning in and spend no more than that. Red China is close to owning us, who they callerd in the 1950's a "paper tiger". Spend your own damn money. Ivan Miller

TAX MONEY FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES!!!!

You would think any human being would be concerned about the number of endangered species there are. Most can be blamed on the human being. Tax money should be spent of this. Funny how human beings think nothing of other species other than themselves.

Importance of Biodiversity

First of all, great article! I wanted to present an additional argument in favor of saving one specific species. Each species adds to the biodiversity of the planet. Each species is part of a food web (including humans). When a species is removed from a food web, the food web loses stability. A weakened food web is less capable of rebounding from natural (or manmade) disasters. Biodiversity is a natural safety net for food webs (which we, as humans, depend upon). Our world is progressing toward a more and more uncertain climate future with the possibility of an increased number of natural disasters, so maintaining healthy food webs (and thus biodiversity) will be crucial to ensure that we can rebound from each disaster that strikes.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Thank you for this beautiful article. How sad that this delicate and lovely creature may vanish forever due to human ignorance and stupidity and greed. By all means, try habitat restoration and captive breeding, perhaps to preserve them for better days (if there are any).

Thank you for this well

Thank you for this well written article. It saddens me so much that this delicate and beautiful creature may (is likely to be) lost forever. The population is crashing at such an amazing rate - by all means let us try captive breeding to preserve them for some better days (if they ever come).

grasshopper sparrow

Please furnish the habitat required, what they eat, and the exact size on you pix. We live near Lake Allatoona and I may have seen these little birds at our bird feeder. Tell me more

Susan Herman

My soul cries out for our

My soul cries out for our fragile birds, endangered animals & earth. I grew up in Florida. I walked, sat. observed the beautiful birds, creatures, white ghost orchids and other nature in the swamps, ponds, lakes and fields. What a wonderful experience it was to keep an eye on the baby sea turtles as to protect them. It was like utopia! I am grateful for that wonder. Now the swamps, waters, fields have become concrete city. It is heartbreaking to see what our world has become. So many do not care. They prefer the drugs, GMO'S, Pesticides. What nature will be left for the future generations? Many would rather hang out in a mall spend money on to many material thing than to spend money, time and observe the beautiful gifts that our creator gave to all of us. There truly is evil. Thank you Audubon for all you do!

The Most Endangered Bird

A wonderfully well-written article; should make ALL people think about the extinction of species and sub-species.

Kissimmee Prairie and the Grasshopper Sparrow

Thanks Ted for keeping this in the forefront. It amazes me how fast the population has fallen. A couple of years ago I was there and they were talking of reintroduction to other areas. Now, we're in desperately hoping to just save the species from extinction. What has changed? A change in food source, predator, disturbance during the breeding season, or mother nature. I hope the team involved is able to find out soon so, we can save the grasshopper sparrow, a signal to how healthy our grasslands could or could not be in the state of Florida.

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