A Little Bird in Big Trouble

The Florida grasshopper sparrow is a home-grown Florida wonder. An extremely secretive bird that rarely flies very high, it never wanders far from its nest and it doesn’t migrate. It acts more like a rodent nesting on the ground and its odd trill call sounds less like a typical songbird and more like its namesake, the grasshopper. Since first identified in 1901 as Ammodramus savannarum floridanus, a distinct subspecies of the prolific, migrating Eastern grasshopper sparrow, this subgroup stayed true to its love for the Sunshine State and the once endless miles of dry grass prairies that defined south-central Florida. These prairies, mostly treeless grass landscapes of diverse plants and shrubs, were home to a myriad of mammal, reptile, insect, and bird species and remains the specific real estate of choice for the Florida grasshopper sparrow. 

But this type of land was coveted by others. A combination of expanding ranching, sod farming, and development, coupled with erratic flooding and now the invasion of fire ants, have all factored into a precipitous decline of this bird species. Since 1986, the Florida grasshopper sparrow has been listed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) as a critically endangered bird species. By 2015, the Florida grasshopper sparrow was the most endangered bird in North America.  

Pulling this bird back from the edge

Through a multi-year partnership of federal, state, avian, academic, and research organization efforts, these birds have gotten a boost equivalent to a population lifeline. World-renowned White Oak Conservation (White Oak) located west of Yulee, Florida, has a team of bird and veterinary experts actively developing a captive breeding program which has helped pull the Florida grasshopper sparrow numbers back from only 50, to nearly double that in three years. In 2019, White Oak released over a hundred birds back into the wild protected dry grass prairies of the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in Osceola County. In 2020, they are scheduled to release another 41 more. Hope now flickers for these small birds. 

Andrew Schumann, White Oak’s Avian Collection Manager, explains that White Oak entered a five-year partnership with FWS, the Tall Timbers Research Station (Tall Timbers), and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to recover the Florida grasshopper sparrow. White Oak’s objective was to establish protocols for future programs that would reintroduce captive-bred Florida grasshopper sparrows back into the wild. FWC Assistant Research Scientist, Dr. Erin Ragheb, whose research has focused on the Florida grasshopper sparrow, provided White Oak with significant data Schumann and his team used to get started. White Oak’s 17,000-acres of relative seclusion has played a large role in the captive breeding program’s success. Schumann emphasizes, “At White Oak, we have room to do things like replicate natural habitat as close as possible. This is the strategy White Oak implements with lots of species. Just give them lots of space, make the habitat as close as you can get to it to where they’re from, and leave them alone. They’ll do the rest.” 

Because the stakes were so high with the Florida grasshopper sparrow, Schumann explains that they needed to establish a prototype program first, and choosing the right habitat was critical. “We began efforts in 2014. I bird watched a huge field on White Oak and found Eastern grasshopper sparrows here, a migratory species that is very common. I knew this is where a grasshopper sparrow would want to be.” He then cultivated this field to mirror a dry grass prairie which included the most critical element, prescribed burning. He says, “Historically, Florida dry grass prairies would have burned throughout the summer in small patches from lightning strikes that would hit at night. We mimic that small patch burning style here, but during the day, and without the lightning.” 

Read MoreBy Janet M. Herrick

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