The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow – A Very Rare View
by: Davis Yancy Clegg
Through my time volunteering with SEZARC (Southeastern Zoological Animal Reproduction and Conservation), I learned that the efforts to protect endangered species have gone well beyond the “tag and track” approach. The Florida Grasshopper sparrow is located in Central Florida and nowhere else. There is a very controversial plan underway to attempt to raise these rare Florida Grasshopper Sparrows. The first chicks to be tested were taken from their nest on an Osceola County ranch. These birds are the most endangered birds in the nation. There are less than 100 males accounted for, and we basically have no idea how many females there are in existence today. Now, it’s important to point out that biologists only take babies from nests from which the mother has fallen and the father is sporadic – at best – signs of filling the parental role required of him in the event of a parental loss. When these babies were only 5 days old, they were transported to the non-profit operation, called Rare Species Conservatory Foundation. Unfortunate for these Florida Grasshopper Sparrows and to put it in the most simplistic way, science is using these rare sparrows as “guinea pigs.” For me, I’m not sure the risk is worth the possibility of a reward.
Paul Reillo, Director of the foundation in Palm Beach County said, “It is a very humbling experience. He went on, “You don’t go into this with any great confidence that you know exactly what to do.” However, on day 9, there were some promising events. On that 9th day, the birds began chirping and flew with high levels off energy as if they were attempting to leave a nest. These findings have been deemed to be true to the conditions of the wild setting where they were. Following up, the team began to experiment on the birds by weaning the 2 in bird that have been fed a paste of cat food and boiled eggs. Through these experiences, the birds wound up increasing their body weight by nearly half their total mass in only a few days. After the birds did well with the solid food, next on the menu was an all-time aviary delicatessen of crickets and worms! These would have been the foods which their mothers would have brought back to the nest for the babies to consume as a regular diet for proper nutrition. “We are hoping they show some curiosity and peck at something that crawling or hopping around,” Reillo pleaded. It is very important to remember that Florida grasshopper sparrows do not migrate and dwell in treeless landscapes called dry prairie. They construct their nests to be nearly invisible among grass and are able – for the most part – to live virtually unseen amongst low-cut vegetation.
Even though we have seen improvement here and there, there is no proof that captive breeding is what is helping maintain the few numbers these sparrows have left. Many biologists have sided with the groups who feel no birds should be taken from the wild because that could actually speed up the process of their eminent demise. In my personal opinion, the only time an animal/bird/etc. should be collect for research is if their life’s end is eminent if they stay in the nest.
As I’ve been researching the captive breeding of these sparrows, I’m reminded of the incident in the late 70’s when the dusky seaside sparrow became extinct because of captive rearing. We can only put forth our best educated efforts in attempts to rejuvenate endangered populations. Thanks to groups like The Fish and Wildlife Service and Sezarc, conservation via reproduction is gaining momentum in the right direction. Let’s see where the science takes us!
Did you know that Amelia Island is a bird sanctuary? Hop on one of our cruises and you’ll be amazed what you’ll discover. (more…)