The Most Endangered Bird in the Continental U.S.
The fight to save the Florida grasshopper sparrow inspires all who love wildlife.
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.
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.