The Most Endangered Bird in the Continental U.S.

The fight to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow inspires all who love wildlife.

Predawn, April 8, 2012: Cold and stiff, I crawl out of my tent in Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park—a wilderness island in the sea of asphalt, cement, and drained agricultural land that is south-central Florida. The International Space Station, brighter than the morning star, sweeps across the Milky Way. And far to the west a ragged line of cabbage palms and live oaks is backlit by the nearly full moon. The birds we’re after sing in the early morning, so we need to get moving.

Three hours later, what birders who aren’t fast enough with their field glasses would call an LBJ (little brown job) is in my right hand. Instructed by biologists Paul Miller of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Sandra Sneckenberger of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I have him in the “photographer’s grip”—his legs between my middle finger and pointer, my thumb against his bent knees. His tail is short, his breast buff, his back dark gray and streaked with brown. There’s a splash of yellow at the wing joint, ochre stripes over his eyes. From a distance he hadn’t looked like much. Now I can see that he’s gorgeous.

I’m holding one of the last Florida Grasshopper Sparrows. Despite extensive habitat restoration, they’re on a toboggan run to oblivion. And unless managers can figure out and reverse what’s wrong in the next year or two, this bird will almost surely be gone—the first known bird extinction in the continental United States since the loss, in 1987, of the dusky seaside sparrow, once native to the marshes of Florida’s Merritt Island and St. John River Valley.

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is one of 12 subspecies, though evidence suggests that the other 11 Grasshopper Sparrows evolved from it.

There are probably fewer than 200 Florida Grasshopper Sparrows left, and as of this writing they’re restricted to the state park and the nearby Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. The population at Avon Park Air Force Range, where researchers had counted 130 singing males 14 years ago, apparently winked out in 2012. Counts of singing males at the state park dropped from 150 in 2002 to 14 in 2012 and at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area from 150 in 2008 to 60 in 2012. It’s difficult to catch or even inventory the females because they are shy, songless, and indistinguishable from the males unless they’re in hand during the breeding season, when one can see that they lack an engorged “cloacal protuberance” (bird version of a penis).

At 54,000 acres, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park comprises slightly more than half the bird’s remaining habitat—the Florida dry prairie, arguably the most endangered, least studied, and most biologically diverse grassland on the planet. Before settlement there may have been 1.2 million acres.

Most of this remnant habitat has been degraded by fire suppression and by aliens such as feral hogs and fire ants. But the Florida DEP, with financial help from the Fish and Wildlife Service, is restoring it with prescribed burns and removal of the invaders. And the service is putting together a 150,000-acre national wildlife refuge that will target the Florida grasshopper sparrow as a major priority. Finally, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group—state and federal managers and biologists who advise the Fish and Wildlife Service—has convinced the agency to authorize captive breeding.

All this, however, may not be enough. If we lose the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, will Americans for the most part notice or care? The answer, alas, is no. Most everyone who reads Audubon cares deeply. We know that species and subspecies matter, but we have trouble putting that knowledge into words for folks like, say, Manuel Lujan, who in 1990, in his capacity as Secretary of the Interior, indignantly inquired: “Do we have to save every subspecies?”

There is no clear line between species and subspecies, and the demarcations keep changing according to human discovery, assumption, and opinion. Both are equally precious, as the framers of our Endangered Species Act understood. Human-caused extinction of either is frightening and unspeakably sad. To borrow the words of naturalist/explorer William Beebe, “When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”

Our male had flown into a mist net we’d set up in his territory. Grasshopper Sparrows got their name because the male’s faint, high-pitched vocalization sounds like the buzz of a grasshopper. This may be an adaptation to delude predators and still allow territorial defense. Miller and Sneckenberger have young ears, so they had been able to hear 160184057 singing. Audubon Florida biologist Paul Gray and I, standing beside them, could not.

Miller had crouched behind the net, playing the song from an app on his iPhone. The bird had veered away half a dozen times, an indication that he was “net savvy.” The band on his left leg confirmed this. The number, 160184057, revealed that in 2007 he’d been caught in the park by Reed Noss and his team from the University of Central Florida.

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group (on which Miller, Sneckenberger, Noss, and Gray serve) fears that the population is increasingly dominated by aging males. Females may be more vulnerable to predation because they incubate eggs and brood young on the ground. And the birds are almost certainly suffering an “Allee effect”; basically, so few remain that they have trouble finding mates, suffer inbreeding, and lose the ability to cooperate in social behaviors such as combined vigilance against predators. Disease and fire ants may be depressing the population further.

Fire ants and nesting Florida Grasshopper Sparrows like the same habitat—the wetter, treeless parts of the prairie. In the area defended by 160184057, Miller has found broods killed by fire ants. The areas of the park shaded by saw palmettos support few ants, and ground nesters that like this habitat, such as meadowlarks and Bachman’s sparrows, are doing fine.

Noss believes the wet sections preferred by the sparrows (perhaps because they produce more insects and grasses) may have become “ecological traps.” Not only are they seething with fire ants, they’re subject to flooding. “We found the highest success in the park’s drier parts even though fewer birds nested there,” he says.

Before I released 160184057, he’d hopped and preened in a wire-framed box lined with black velvet while Joel Sartore recorded him in video and still frame. Four strobe lights, powered by a gasoline generator 150 feet away, flashed in radio-controlled synchrony with the camera shutter.

Some 20 years after earth lost its last Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Sartore photographed the preserved carcass for National Geographic. I asked him what he’d felt. “It was a pilgrimage for me,” he said. “I was sad and awed at the same time. I held him in my hand, and turned him over a few times. He didn’t look anything like he looked in life. Dead birds fade.”

Seven years ago, with funding from National Geographic, Sartore started the Photo Ark Project, an effort to get people to care that we are in the process of dooming half the planet’s species to extinction in the next 100 years. “I want a record of what will be gone,” he told me. “And maybe if I can get people to fall in love with animals like the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, we can save a few. It’s folly to think that we can keep killing off species and get away with it. If we drive enough to extinction, we’ll go extinct, too.” So far he has photographed 2,600 species for the project, all without injury or incident.

As recently as 2010 members of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group were talking about captive breeding as a last-ditch possibility. Now they’ve sold it to the Fish and Wildlife Service as the best remaining option. Captive breeding is a bit like throwing antique china out the attic window during a house fire and hoping a few pieces land intact. But occasionally, as with California Condors and black-footed ferrets, it works. If the feds had listened to the large element of the environmental community (me included) that opposed evacuation of these species from the wild, both would now be extinct.

On November 6, 2012, Audubon Florida and allies urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove eggs or chicks in the spring of 2013. “We consider this the most endangered bird in the continental United States and worthy of extra efforts,” they wrote.

After some hesitation, the service approved captive breeding in January 2013.

The service has learned from its failure with the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. Like the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, the Dusky didn’t migrate. The sex ratio of the Dusky (and very likely the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow) became skewed in favor of males. The downward trajectories of both are identical and caused by the same kind of habitat destruction, and both apparently suffered from Allee effects.

In 1969 (four years before passage of the Endangered Species Act) the service couldn’t do much about the state’s proposed highway through the heart of dusky habitat. But it then frittered away the opportunity for captive breeding with endless paper shuffling. When only males survived, Audubon Florida proposed hybridizing them with females of the closely related Scott’s Seaside Sparrow, explaining that by backcrossing it would be possible to get birds that were almost 97 percent dusky in just five generations. “The gene pool of the unique population of seaside sparrows will be lost forever with the death of these surviving males,” it warned. The service refused to even consider the plan, calling it “ludicrous.” When finally it relented, allowing an attempt by Disney World— which had the facilities, funds, and inclination—time had run out. A few hybrids were produced, but they didn’t live long enough for backcrossing. The last pure dusky, “Orange Band,” ancient and blind in one eye, died on June 16, 1987.

But as the old-guard bureaucracy retires, the Fish and Wildlife Service improves. Back when it was supposedly recovering the dusky, it destroyed habitat at the request of mosquito-control pooh-bahs who wanted it flooded and county commissioners who wanted it drained. And when Brian Sharp, the dedicated biologist who led the dusky recovery project, complained about this misfeasance he got disappeared to Oregon. Now the service is securing funds for much-needed Florida Grasshopper Sparrow research (so far about $1,116,600, a major accomplishment with the current funding crunch) and putting together the 150,000-acre Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge that will protect additional sparrow habitat. And these days the service as well as state resource agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection not only produce but support tireless, talented professionals like Sneckenberger and Miller who are no less passionate in their defense of endangered species than was Sharp.

Sneckenberger, Gray, and Miller showed Sartore and me some of the habitat work. We inspected old and new prescribed burns that have counteracted years of fire suppression. The burns have revealed hundreds of fire-ant mounds that Miller douses with poison.

We saw swaths of prairie torn up by feral hogs, which destroy the habitat of sparrows and likely eat their eggs and hatchlings. But two years earlier I’d seen more damage. The park has contracted with rodeo rider Spook Whidden, who, with the help of dogs, chases down the hogs on horseback, wrestles them to the ground (once getting part of a finger bitten off), ties them up, and sells them to ranchers and hunting clubs. “Hogs don’t surrender easy,” he recently understated to the Tampa Bay Times.

We drove out to Audubon’s former 7,300-acre Kissimmee Prairie Sanctuary, added to the park 12 years ago. When Gray was managing it, neighbors plugged up drainage pipes, flooding the sanctuary and extirpating its sparrows. To force drainage he’d obtained a federal court order, still in effect. Eventually the birds returned.

Few people know that eastern prairies exist. In the afternoon a freshening south wind sent waves across a diverse sea of grasses, forbs, and flowering plants. And in the distance, islands of cabbage palms and live oaks rose from a muted gray-green surface that stretched to the horizons. All these plants evolved with and depend on fires caused by 25 to 30 lightning strikes per square mile per year. In a few days butterflies would appear to start the massive pollination process—more species than recorded on any other land owned by the state. A Florida Burrowing Owl perched on a fence post, silhouetted by the low sun. A White-tailed Kite floated overhead. And alligators lounged in a flowage beside “No Swimming” signs. To borrow the words of John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Audubon has had a presence here since the early 1930s, when it started leading tours for the Holy Grail of birding, the five endemic species of the dry prairie: Florida Sandhill Crane, Audubon’s Crested Caracara, Florida Mottled Duck, Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, and Florida Burrowing Owl. We encountered all these birds and many more. While habitat restoration has yet to work for the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, it’s a smashing success for everything else. “The sparrow is the flagship bird for the dry prairie,” says Noss. “It’s the only argument we’ve been able to make for land acquisition and other protections. Without this bird there’s no legal hook to create more dry-prairie habitat.”

“We’re creating more habitat all the time,” remarks Sneckenberger. “So why is the population going down instead of up?”

While it’s not too late to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, we’ll have to get lucky fast—that is, diagnose the problem and fix it. Even if the effort fails, it can provide an important lesson: that earth’s biodiversity is priceless and belongs not to us but to unborn generations of humans and all life-forms. In his eulogy to the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Brian Sharp wrote: “It has been suggested that you might not be missed. To think that a necklace would never miss one of its pearls, or a song one of its notes. Neither this spring, nor ever again, will your exuberant performances appear on nature’s stage. . . . Your loss is our world and ourselves diminished.”

Moving as that eulogy is, it doesn’t tell us much about why species and subspecies matter. I’ve heard the “canary in the coal mine” argument, but few buy it when life is good and rare plants and animals they’ve never gotten near fade away. I’ve heard the rivet argument—a plane can lose a few and still fly; a plane that loses more will crash. But the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow population doesn’t equal a paint chip off a rivet head. I’ve heard the insect argument. Without songbirds insects would denude the planet. Sure, but all the Florida Grasshopper Sparrows working together couldn’t protect a quarter-acre. And I’ve heard the medicine argument. For example, an obscure “weed”—the rosy periwinkle—provides alkaloids used to treat Hodgkin’s disease and acute childhood leukemia. But this implies that the function of biodiversity is human health, and what of all the plants and animals, including the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, that probably can’t cure anything?

Even Harvard professor E.O. Wilson struggles with an explanation. “There is no guarantee of life after death; and heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves, on this planet,” he writes. True enough, but this implies that biodiversity exists to please humans.

Maybe the only explanation for people who have to ask why the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow matters is this: It matters not because it is a source of enrichment for human lives (although it is), not because it is a source of medicine or agent of pest control (it is probably neither), not because it is an “indicator species” that tells us we haven’t completely wrecked our habitat, not because it is anything, only because it is.

Hardened as I am from 33 years of covering such stories for Audubon, I couldn’t speak for several minutes after I’d released what may be the last Florida Grasshopper Sparrow all but a few dozen people will ever see save as images recorded by Joel Sartore. Then we strapped on our binoculars and headed west. It was time for birding, brighter thoughts, and a celebration of everything we have left.