The clock is ticking for the highly-endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow, but a new project recently green-lit by a federal agency may offer some hope for avoiding extinction. Scientists believe there are roughly 200 of the tiny birds remaining in the wild. Two years ago, scientists found the lowest count of the birds in history: last year's numbers dipped even lower.
If the "present trends continued," there is a chance the bird could disappear in as little as five years, according to Paul Gray, the Audubon Florida science coordinator, who said that timeline was "not likely, but possible." But even if birds remained in the wild, their rapidly declining numbers would spell disaster for the scientists who are racing against time to save them.
"Even if they don't completely disappear, there might be so few left that we can't do meaningful studies to find out what's wrong," Gray said via email. "Working on the last survivors of a disaster may not tell you how they were, or how they should be, when things were good."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials recently confirmed they will this summer proceed with a captive breeding program in the hopes of keeping this highly-specialized and "mysterious" endemic species hanging on. Interestingly enough, the agency earlier this year rejected a grant submitted by the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group to fund field research on the bird. (Read more about the controversial decision here.)
According to a story by Orlando Sentinel environmental reporter Kevin Spear, the federal agency will work with volunteers, agency staff, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Florida's Park Service to enact a plan that will involve collecting eggs "through early summer, taking them to the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee."
Spear's story details the captive breeding process:
Hatchlings will be kept in captivity in a years-long effort to establish a population of birds that eventually could help bolster the health of sparrows still existing in the wild -- or serve as pioneers in re-establishing a wild population should the current one go extinct.
Meanwhile, Gray said captive breeding programs have worked for other species and "it can here too," as scientists work to iron out the details of the project.
Part of the big question surrounding this little bird is what has led to its rapid decline. Hypotheses for decline include changes to natural fire and hydrology patterns, a breakdown in population dynamics, fire ant predation, cattle grazing, and habitat loss.