The Most Endangered Bird in the Continental U.S.

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

Florida's Grasshopper Sparrow

Ted Williams' article is so well-written that even a non-birder should take notice. In the 1980s I had the great good fortune to visit Kissimmee Prairie with an Ornithologist and an Audubon Sanctuary professional -- what birds we saw! Some ofd the loveliest creatures on earth.
Also the feral pigs. What perfect habitat for the native creatures of the "River of Grass." Can't we manage to keep enough of it intact permanently?

Florida is being overwhelmed

Florida is being overwhelmed by feral cats. There are idiots setting up feral cat colonies all over Florida many in the public forest. I have watched many times someones nonbirding cat catch and kill bird after bird, especially low roosting birds like our native sparrows. Feral nonnative spiecies are unbelievably distructive and have no place in the wild. You don't know how bad this problam is until you go out west to wyoming and see the carcasses of dead deer, antelope and other animals that were run off of the only water by an aggressive wild stalion. Cats and other feral animals have no place on public land. They are just too distructive.

Feral Cats

The only problem is the human being who continues to treat animals like disposable garbage. When irresponsible pet owners decide they don't want the cat, they toss it out the door to fend for itself. Whose fault is that? Your stupid, ignorant human being. Blame the human being for all the non native species. As usual, people blame them instead of themselves and their ignorant response is to kill them off. The same should be said for many of the useless so called human animals that roam this planet and think they are the only thing that has a right to be here.

Please come out with us soon,

Please come out with us soon, to again purge portions of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park of the alien fire ants which are helping to push the grasshopper sparrow closer to oblivion. This article moved me to action. Let it move you. As soon as the rainy season is over, we will attack.

Fl Grasshopper Sparrow

Thank you Ted for such a well written article on both the habitat and the Sparrow. Audubon is one of the few organizations that recognizes that healthy habitat = healthy and happy birds. I am taking comfort in the fact that the captive breeding was approved. I am keeping my fingers crossed for the future of this subspecies.

Fl Grasshopper Sparrow

We were fortunate to have seen & heard vocalizing the only known KPPSP breeding male this May while on a camping trip at the Preserve. We will be sad if it turns out that we have just seen/heard the last known breeding male of the subspecies.

Thank you.

Thank you.

All creatures are important.

All creatures are important. I hope that we can save this animal!

Florida grasshopper sparrow

This article saddened me to tears. I feel that thinking that any living creature has no importance, that it doesn't deserve the dignity of its place on this earth is a sad statement from us humans. Mr. Williams, thank you for your words and your work. I will share your article if only to show my respect for this beautiful bird. I care.

Kissimmee Prairie and the Grasshopper Sparrow

I read this short article with interest because I have pounded the saw palmetto with Paul Miller and the numerous volunteers during the winter time Sparrow Round Ups for several seasons. It is an activity more suited to young people instead of a middle aged women but it was fun and eye opening for me. The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is a beautiful little bird and I looked wide-eyed like a little kid when I could see it up close and personal fresh out of the mist nets. Kissimmee Prairie is unique and stunning. When I'm in Florida, I try never to miss a trip to this spot that demands to be saved as well as all the creatures that rely on it for their lives. The work to save what's left is an important job for many reasons if we are to save ourselves and the planet that sustains us. I am dismayed to learn of how few birds are left.

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