Bird on the brink

To save the rare grasshop­per spar­row, re­searchers first must find, and study them.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By Kevin Spear

When young Florida grasshop­per spar­rows leave home, they sim­ply pop out of their nest, hid­den on the ground, and walk off into the wild — still un­able to fly.

Where the en­dan­gered birds go from there, and how many sur­vive to pro­duce their own young the fol­low­ing sea­son, are mys­ter­ies that bi­ol­o­gists ur­gently want to solve. If the youngest birds aren’t far­ing well, then sav­ing the species from ex­tinc­tion may re­quire a risky, last­ditch mea­sure: cap­tur­ing most of the re­main­ing spar­rows in the hope they’ll mul­ti­ply in cap­tiv­ity.

“It’s a bird that doesn’t give up its se­crets eas­ily,” said erin Ragheb, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion sci­en­tist.

Of the few hun­dred sur­viv­ing Florida grasshop­per spar­rows, nearly all are cling­ing to ex­is­tence on state con­ser­va­tion land in Osce­ola County about 80km south of down­town Or­lando.

ecol­o­gists think they are the most en­dan­gered bird in north Amer­ica. Cen­tral Florida was also home to the last bird to slip into ex­tinc­tion in the United States: the dusky sea­side spar­row, which van­ished in the late 1980s. The ef­fort by state and fed­eral agen­cies and pri­vate con­ser­va­tion groups to bring Florida grasshop­per spar­rows back from the brink has re­cently ac­cel­er­ated. But it has also


had to re­turn to the es­sen­tials of the birds’ ex­is­tence: where they live, how many are born ev­ery year and what has caused them to plum­met in num­bers dur­ing the past decade. It’s a race against time to learn enough about the bird to make a dif­fer­ence to its fate.

By com­par­i­son, trou­bled birds such as the Cal­i­for­nia con­dor, bald ea­gle and scrub-jay are at least read­ily found and ob­served in the wild. But the grasshop­per spar­row sur­vives on its abil­ity to re­main elu­sive. The few re­main­ing birds live in vast prairies of knee-high grasses and shrubs, spend­ing very lit­tle time above the veg­e­ta­tion, ex­posed. The bird’s sci­en­tific name is Am­mod­ra­mus sa­van­narum flori­danus; “am­mod­ra­mus” is Latin for “sand run­ner.”

“Some­times I feel like I’m study­ing mice,” said Ragheb, who noted that only male spar­rows emerge from the dense ground cover. “Fe­males are al­most ex­clu­sively on the ground and es­sen­tially in­vis­i­ble.”

Dur­ing a re­cent out­ing with a re­porter at Three Lakes Wildlife Man­age­ment Area, a refuge of more than 20,000ha south of St Cloud, Ragheb was able to find a few of the spar­rows by key­ing in on their song – ei­ther a sur­pris­ingly un­bird­like buzz or a more con­ven­tional war­ble. But from lessons al­ready learned this year, re­searchers know the spar­rows that sing and draw at­ten­tion to them­selves are the least in­ter­est­ing in terms of what the ex­perts are seek­ing most: where the ac­tive nests are and the num­ber of young each fe­male pro­duces.

Lone males tend to sing the most, while males in­volved in nest­ing go about their work qui­etly, said Ragheb, spar­row-re­search man­ager at Three Lakes. “The least showy are the most in­ter­est­ing.”

Be­cause the small, brown birds are so rare and se­cre­tive, vir­tu­ally no­body other than trained and pa­tient bi­ol­o­gists ever sees them. And their nests are even harder to find.

Ragheb pointed out a nest that was ac­tive ear­lier this year but has since been aban­doned. It was about the size of a base­ball, with an open­ing smaller than a golf ball, and was made of finely wo­ven grass that blended per­fectly with the thick grass grow­ing around it. The nest’s only de­fence is to re­main hid­den from a long list of preda­tors, in­clud­ing deer and tur­tles, that eat spar­row eggs.

“Just about ev­ery­thing out there is a threat,” Ragheb said.

Sev­eral spar­row ex­perts and ecol­o­gists worry that some of the birds should al­ready be liv­ing in cap­tiv­ity, with the goal of rais­ing a pop­u­la­tion of spar­rows in case those in the wild van­ish en­tirely.

Mary Peter­son, a US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice en­dan­gered-species spe­cial­ist, said her agency will help bring in a “coach” who spe­cialises in the com­plex de­ci­sion­mak­ing that could lead to cap­tur­ing spar­rows for cap­tive breed­ing. An­other on­go­ing con­cern among sev­eral spar­row ex­perts is the lack of state and fed­eral money for spar­row re­cov­ery.

“We are go­ing for ev­ery pot of money we can,” Peter­son said. — The Or­lando Sen­tinel/McClatchy Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

a bi­ol­o­gist searches for the Florida grasshop­per spar­row, which is very low in num­bers and the most en­dan­gered bird in north amer­ica, in the Three Lakes Wildlife man­age­ment area. (In­set) only some 200 grasshop­per spar­rows are be­lieved to re­main in Florida.— McT

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