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Published: Monday December 16, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday December 16, 2013 MYT 8:53:08 AM

Bird on the brink

Only some 200 grasshopper sparrows are believed to remain in Florida.— MCT

Only some 200 grasshopper sparrows are believed to remain in Florida.— MCT

To save the rare grasshopper sparrow, researchers first must find, and study them.

When young Florida grasshopper sparrows leave home, they simply pop out of their nest, hidden on the ground, and walk off into the wild — still unable to fly.

Where the endangered birds go from there, and how many survive to produce their own young the following season, are mysteries that biologists urgently want to solve. If the youngest birds aren’t faring well, then saving the species from extinction may require a risky, last-ditch measure: capturing most of the remaining sparrows in the hope they’ll multiply in captivity.

“It’s a bird that doesn’t give up its secrets easily,” said Erin Ragheb, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission scientist.

Of the few hundred surviving Florida grasshopper sparrows, nearly all are clinging to existence on state conservation land in Osceola County about 80km south of downtown Orlando.

Ecologists think they are the most endangered bird in North America. Central Florida was also home to the last bird to slip into extinction in the United States: the dusky seaside sparrow, which vanished in the late 1980s. The effort by state and federal agencies and private conservation groups to bring Florida grasshopper sparrows back from the brink has recently accelerated. But it has also had to return to the essentials of the birds’ existence: where they live, how many are born every year and what has caused them to plummet in numbers during the past decade. It’s a race against time to learn enough about the bird to make a difference to its fate.

FWC biologist Erin Hewett is studying the Florida grasshopper sparrow, which is very low in numbers and the most endangered bird in North America. Here, she searches for birds in the Three Lakes Wildlife management area south of St. Cloud, Florida, August 22, 2013. (George Skene/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)
Elusive: A biologist searches for the Florida grasshopper sparrow, which is very low in numbers and the most endangered bird in North America, in the Three Lakes Wildlife management area. — MCT

By comparison, troubled birds such as the California condor, bald eagle and scrub-jay are at least readily found and observed in the wild. But the grasshopper sparrow survives on its ability to remain elusive. The few remaining birds live in vast prairies of knee-high grasses and shrubs, spending very little time above the vegetation, exposed. The bird’s scientific name is Ammodramus savannarum floridanus; “ammodramus” is Latin for “sand runner.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m studying mice,” said Ragheb, who noted that only male sparrows emerge from the dense ground cover. “Females are almost exclusively on the ground and essentially invisible.”

During a recent outing with a reporter at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, a refuge of more than 20,000ha south of St Cloud, Ragheb was able to find a few of the sparrows by keying in on their song – either a surprisingly unbird-like buzz or a more conventional warble. But from lessons already learned this year, researchers know the sparrows that sing and draw attention to themselves are the least interesting in terms of what the experts are seeking most: where the active nests are and the number of young each female produces.

Lone males tend to sing the most, while males involved in nesting go about their work quietly, said Ragheb, sparrow-research manager at Three Lakes. “The least showy are the most interesting.”

Because the small, brown birds are so rare and secretive, virtually nobody other than trained and patient biologists ever sees them. And their nests are even harder to find.

Ragheb pointed out a nest that was active earlier this year but has since been abandoned. It was about the size of a baseball, with an opening smaller than a golf ball, and was made of finely woven grass that blended perfectly with the thick grass growing around it. The nest’s only defence is to remain hidden from a long list of predators, including deer and turtles, that eat sparrow eggs.

“Just about everything out there is a threat,” Ragheb said.

Several sparrow experts and ecologists worry that some of the birds should already be living in captivity, with the goal of raising a population of sparrows in case those in the wild vanish entirely.

Mary Peterson, a US Fish and Wildlife Service endangered-species specialist, said her agency will help bring in a “coach” who specialises in the complex decision-making that could lead to capturing sparrows for captive breeding. Another ongoing concern among several sparrow experts is the lack of state and federal money for sparrow recovery.

“We are going for every pot of money we can,” Peterson said. — The Orlando Sentinel/McClatchy Tribune Information Services

Tags / Keywords: Environment, Lifestyle, ecowatch, endangered species, sparrow

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