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An Urgent Effort To Rescue A Tiny Sparrow From Extinction

Erin Ragheb of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission aims to catch a Florida grasshopper sparrow as the sun rises over the Central Florida prairie. Photo by Amy Green
Erin Ragheb of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission aims to catch a Florida grasshopper sparrow as the sun rises over the Central Florida prairie. Photo by Amy Green

An iPod chirps from a shrub as the sun rises over the central Florida prairie, sending pink rays over the saw palmetto and wiregrass. In the distance hardwood hammocks obscure the horizon.

"When the light is like it is right now we call it the golden hour," says Erin Ragheb of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That's why she works quickly.

"Because you've got this little window of time where some of the birds like fledglings or females that wouldn't normally be singing, they come up out of the wet grass to dry their feathers and preen."

She drives a green metal stake into the earth using her foot then steps through knee-high vegetation and ankle-deep water, unfurling a 39-foot net across the prairie not far from Walt Disney World in the headwaters of the Everglades. The prairie is home to the last wild population of the Florida grasshopper sparrow.

"The bird has a really fine detailed scalloped pattern on the back with rusty browns and blacks and white. It's very striking."

Ragheb aims this morning to catch a fledgling. She conceals the iPod and waterproof speaker in the shrub hoping to draw one out. She wants to better understand the sparrow's population here so she can learn why it is collapsing even in a pristine habitat.

"On the forehead of the bird there's a little streak of bright yellow and then also on the bend of the wing there's another little crescent of bright yellow. So it's a very sharp-looking bird in the hand."

Among the most endangered birds in North America is the Florida grasshopper sparrow.

Fewer than 150 are believed to remain of the tiny sparrow, which is found only on the prairie of central Florida. The reasons for its decline are not well-understood.

The Florida grasshopper sparrow would be the first confirmed bird extinction in the continental United States since the Dusky seaside sparrow, also found in Florida, died out in 1987.

"This might be the last gasp genetically to save the Florida grasshopper sparrow," says Paul Reillo of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation's captive breeding center outside of West Palm Beach. He points toward a row of cages where fledglings perch on slender branches. Recordings of wild Florida grasshopper sparrows help them learn to sing.
In Captivity

The fledglings are among 21 Florida grasshopper sparrows housed here in shipping containers in the shade of cypress and palm trees. Reillo says they were rescued from failing or flooded nests on the prairie after years of deliberation among researchers and government agencies over whether taking sparrows for captive breeding might negatively impact their wild population.

"Captive breeding I think is universally recognized in the conservation community as one of the last intervention efforts that you undertake. We want to keep species in the wild. We want endangered species to recover in the wild."

The debate was settled last year when a mother was found dead outside of a nest of chicks. Then this spring a series of heavy rains inundated the prairie, leaving eggs floating and threatening to wipe out a generation of the critically endangered sparrow.

Reillo and his staff raised the orphaned chicks and incubated the eggs, feeding the hatchlings on an exhausting schedule of every 40 minutes for nearly 24 hours a day.

"We started with a rather motley misfit group of founders, and yet we saw amazing reproductive effort. That's a hopeful sign."

The goal is to re-introduce the captive-bred Florida grasshopper sparrows back to the wild, but Reillo says that still is at least a few years away.

"The next step in my opinion is can we produce in captivity a fully parent-reared offspring. Fully parent-reared. That means both parents contributing to the care and nurturing of the chicks all the way through to independence."
On the Prairie

Back on the central Florida prairie Ragheb checks the net for fledglings, but the net is empty.

"Even on a good day it's hard to know if you're going to catch any birds. So I'd say especially for fledgling captures for every dozen nets we set up we might catch one bird. So it's a lot of work. It takes a lot of patience."

The Florida grasshopper sparrow is considered a flagship species representative of the central Florida prairie, a habitat that even few Floridians have seen. As much as 90 percent has been lost to development, and that is believed to be a primary cause for the sparrow's collapse.

"The nest success rates out here are very low. But the females, they don't waste any time starting over."

But researchers like Ragheb also are exploring other reasons like disease. They don't want to re-introduce captive-bred Florida grasshopper sparrows back to a broken habitat.

"That's one of the things that encourages me the most and allows me to not lose hope, is just look at the sparrows and look at how determined they are at being successful. And so I feel like we need to persist with the same level of determination that the sparrow does."

Ragheb says the work can be discouraging. But she hopes that even as the Florida grasshopper sparrow teeters on the brink extinction lessons learned from its conservation can help bolster other bird species of concern on the central Florida prairie, which itself is vanishing.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.