Despite public land managers’ efforts to recover the bird, its population continues to decline steeply on the very lands where it should be thriving. Without immediate intervention, the outlook is dire for this diminutive Florida prairie specialist.
The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is restricted to the dry prairie ecosystem of central and south Florida. One of four subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrows in North America, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow does not migrate, living here year round. Perhaps the most endangered bird in the continental US, few people have seen or even heard of it.
Florida Grasshopper Sparrows are named or one of their calls, a quiet buzz that sounds much like a grasshopper. Male sparrows sing only a few months of the year during the nesting season, for a few hours each day. Intricately patterned in brown, white, and black, the birds are well camouflaged with the remote grasslands in Florida’s interior where they live, making them difficult to locate. Their quiet, cryptic, and remote nature have contributed to their anonymous personality.
What's the difference between Florida Grasshopper Sparrows and other Grasshopper Sparrows? Click here for an interesting article on this oft-asked question.
The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow nests in spring (April-July) on the ground, under palmettos or in grass lumps. The female lays 3-5 eggs, and young fledge within 9 to 10 days. The male sings from a low perch to defend territory—about the only time they are readily visible--and helps raise the young. Diet includes seeds and invertebrates. It is thought that most individuals live their entire lives within a few miles of their place of birth.
The sparrow is so highly endangered due in large part to its exclusive dependence upon Florida dry prairie habitat, more than 85% of which has been destroyed. Most prairie loss has resulted from conversion to domestic pasture grasses, which support more cattle per acre and can support some species of prairie wildlife, but not Florida Grasshopper Sparrows. This “improved pasture” lacks the structure that these birds need. Research indicates the sparrows need native prairie in prime condition—it should burn every two years and as a result have virtually no brush or trees. Burns at the end of the dry season (April-June) are considered better than other times of the year.
Despite much understanding of their habitat requirements, sparrow populations have declined on all three conservation lands where they remain, with 2016 reporting the lowest counts in history. Unfortunately, reasons for the decline are unknown but suspects include suboptimal habitat management, fire ants and other predators destroying nests, diseases, and genetic problems.
The Avon Park Bombing Range sub-population dropped from about 130 singing males in 1999 to only 10 in 2004. In recent years only a few singing males and handful of successful nests have been detected. In a similar fashion, the counts of singing males at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park declined from 150 a decade ago to only a few found on the entire 50,000-acre property. And at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area where as many as 140 singing males have been counted, recent counts have been fairly stable at about 60 singing males, but still seem to be sliding downward.The populations at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park now have fewer birds than were recorded at Avon Park prior to its rapid population rash. At these population levels, genetic problems become a major concern.
The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group is composed of managers of properties the sparrows occupy, researchers, federal and state wildlife agencies and Audubon. The group’s short-term emphasis: manage the sparrows’ habitat to the best standard possible. The essential longer-term need is to mount an intensive research effort examining threats like disease, genetics, and fire ants, which is being funded principally by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The USFWS now is funding several captive breeding efforts, and other partners, including Audubon, are contributing funds and manpower to cooperative efforts.
The tenuous nature of this sparrow’s existence was seen during May 2016 when extremely heavy rains flooded the prairies and drowned almost every known nest on the same day. Fortunately and heroically, sparrow crews went on a rescue mission and recovered baby sparrows and unhatched eggs from flooded nests and sent them to the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation where many survived and increased the captive flock to about 30 birds.
Hope on Public Lands
Encouraging reports of at least two other subpopulations of Florida Grasshopper Sparrows on private lands give additional hope or the future of this rare Florida endemic. Numbers of birds or population trends on these sites are unknown but the new Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area has the opportunity to secure these properties through full-fee acquisition or conservation easements.