Fire ants are notorious Florida invasives, leaving a trail of painful welts and blisters in their wake. Those pesky exotic intruders also happen to be a serious threat to some of the state's most vulnerable endemic species. This includes the Florida grasshopper sparrow, which recently made the March/April cover of Audubon Magazine as "the most endangered bird in the continental United States."
Conservationists and a state agency are teaming up to destroy populations of predatory fire ants and ideally assist the Florida grasshopper sparrow in the process.
WLRN has previously reported on the plight of the tiny bird which lives only in the dry prairies south of Orlando. It is estimated that fewer than 200 of the birds remain in the wild. Habitat destruction, invasive fire ants, and natural fire suppression number among the reasons for the bird's decline. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year rejected a "three-year, $833,000 grant...that would've funded field research on the endangered bird."
The Audubon's Ted Williams (a noted environmental reporter who recently penned a controversial Orlando Sentinel op-ed about feral cats) writes of the bird's remaining habitat in places like the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park; "Most of this remnant habitat has been degraded by fire suppression and by aliens such as feral hogs and fire ants."
In an interview with WLRN earlier this year, biologist Reed Noss echoed that concern, saying scientists have been unable to determine the full impact of fire ants but that the invasives are known to attack sparrow nestlings. Williams writes; "Fire ants and nesting Florida grasshopper sparrows like the same habitat--the wetter, treeless parts of the prairie...biologist Paul Miller has found broods killed by fire ants."
This spring, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park (KPPSP) land managers, Friends of KPPSP, and the Audubon, are asking citizen scientists to participate in a plan to attack fire ants living on KPPSP land. A series of prescribed burns are planned for the park. Within a few weeks of the burns, small teams of volunteers will traverse designated routes, recording every visible fire ant mound, and treating it with a pesticide. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reviewed the proposed use of pesticides and "believes it presents negligible if any increased risk to Florida grasshopper sparrows."
Volunteers will be given free overnight camping at the Preserve, plus materials needed to complete the task. Anyone interested in learning more about the plan or signing up to volunteer can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, here's a short and sweet video of the Florida grasshopper sparrow taken during the Audubon cover shoot: