2020 has already proven to be a monumental year in Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (FGSP) conservation. North America’s most endangered bird had experienced a 20-year population decline that has defied all expert attempts to ameliorate, leaving them guessing what exactly was wrong.
As an emergency measure, researchers began a captive breeding program in 2015. The first releases of birds born and raised in captivity occurred last summer, and to the great relief and amazement of all involved, the released birds have not only survived, but are successfully breeding on Central Florida prairie.
FGSP are dependent on the dry prairie ecosystem of central Florida and found nowhere else. Some 90% of the native prairies have been plowed under for human uses, but three large conservation areas, the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, the Avon Park Air Force Range, and the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, have high quality habitat and have been managed specifically for FGSP.
Back in 2000, the FGSP population at Avon Park dropped from about 150 singing males to 10 in only four years. The Kissimmee Prairie followed next with a long decline; Three Lakes was last, as 140 singing males in 2008 declined to only 34 by 2019.
When sparrows were released into Three Lakes, conservationists held their collective breath. Would the birds survive?
Yes! We are only partly through the breeding season and already this summer, 48 males have been singing; 26 of them from the summer releases.
There is not enough space on this page to be able to list all the valuable people, agencies, NGOs, breeding facilities, and others who have helped the prospects of the FGSP. The White Oak Conservation Center has been the primary, but not only captive center. Their staff helped pioneer both breeding and captive release techniques. The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group — which began as a way to share knowledge between different agencies managing sparrows — has proven to be an invaluable forum for working through expected and surprise issues.
There remains a long road ahead.
The reason for the sparrows’ decline still remains unclear. Is it disease, low nest success, low annual survival, habitat management problems? Captive releases can buoy the population but might not fix the underlying issues.
Audubon staff have been critical team members throughout the reintroduction process, providing technical support to the agencies, funding field technicians, and securing funds to maintain captive breeding activities.