Say Hello to the First Florida Grasshopper Sparrows Born in Captivity

Tiny, pink, and bald all over, these babies are making conservation history.

Now here's a cause for celebration that's both tiny in size, but huge in importance: The world’s first captive-raised Florida Grasshopper Sparrow chicks just arrived at the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF) in Loxahatchee, Florida. 

The four baby birds are big news, mainly because there are only 150 Florida Grasshopper Sparrows remaining in the wild. In fact, the floridanus subspecies is considered one of the most endangered birds in the continental United States. Named for their quiet, orthopteran calls, Florida Grasshopper Sparrows are ground nesters that live year-round on the prairies of Central and South Florida. But in recent years, some 85 percent of their native grasslands have been converted to pastures for cattle grazing. As a result, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow population has plummeted, making the subspecies extremely susceptible to predation, disease, inbreeding, and lost social niches. If it weren’t for human interference (the good kind, that is), they’d be doomed to extinction.

To save the struggling subspecies, in 2013, the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group—made up of property managers, biologists, wildlife agencies, and the National Audubon Society—got approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to launch a captive-breeding program. The revival efforts finally took off last year when RSCF, in collaboration with Florida International University's Tropical Conservation Institute, was given seven Grasshoppers to raise—all of which were collected off the prairie by USFWS specifically for breeding. The birds were then placed in sparrow houses on RSCF property, where they were given around-the-clock care and enouraged to couple up and mate. “Within a year, they were nesting on their own,” says Paul R. Reillo, the president of RSCF. The first successful pair laid its eggs on April 26, and the oldest chick hatched on the morning of May 9. Soon, three more baby sparrows followed.

“This is one of those unprecedented and milestone conservation events that came at a time when we were imagining a very dire future,” Reillo says. “We’re going to learn a lot about parental care from this first clutch. This is just the very, very beginning of a process.”

While the genetic makeup of the Florida subspecies is unique, there are Grasshopper Sparrows all over the country, with several subpopulations on the East Coast, Central America, and the West Indies. The species as a whole is not endangered, but it has declined about 75 percent in the last 50 years. Subsequently, other conservation projects have sprung up to protect local pockets of sparrows. Audubon Washington, for example, is two years into a Sagebrush Songbird Citizen Science Survey, which has volunteers scouting nearly a million acres of the state’s prairielands to find out exactly where birds like the Grasshopper Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow, and Sage Thrasher live. “Grasshopper Sparrows seem better adjusted than other species to habitat edges: where sage transitions to steppe and grasses,” says Audubon Washington’s Program Director Christi Norman. 

Given the vastness of the prairie ecosystem, the best way to conserve the sparrow is to break down its behaviors and address them individually, Reillo says. RSCF’s plan is to give captive Grasshoppers unlimited resources, mimic natural day length, record wild songs from the field and replay them to nestlings, and ensure their security overall. Since the birds are only five inches long and typically live less than three years, raising them is quite a challenge. Compared to birds like condors, Grasshoppers “mature, reproduce, and die much quicker,” Reillo says, “so our window to do something meaningful is quite narrow.” In fact, the team didn’t expect to get a successful hatching so quickly.

If all goes as planned, these first four nestlings should fledge and flee the nest within the week. But they’ll stay within RSCF’s sparrow houses to help bolster the captive population, and ultimately, maybe support a self-sustaining group of Florida Grasshopper Sparrows in the prairie. Just in the last two weeks, Reillo says he’s gotten news of another potential subspecies hatching, this one at the White Oak conservation facility in Yulee, Florida. His prediction: “2016 is a good year for the Grasshopper Sparrow.”