Captive-reared Florida grasshopper sparrows are adjusting to the wild

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There are positive signs for the population of Florida’s rarest bird: the small, but vocal, grasshopper sparrow.

This year, wildlife officials – from the state and federal level – released 90 captive-reared sparrows into the prairie areas of Osceola County. Prior to the release, biologists said they documented only 80 of the rare sparrows in the wild. 

The good news is the newly-released birds appear to be adapting to life in the dry, open prairies, their natural habitat, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is promising, considering just two years ago, officials said the sparrow could become extinct by 2020.

Before they were released, the sparrows stayed in an on-prairie aviary to adjust to the environment. Some were fitted with tracking devices for biologists to monitor their survival through the program. 

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The grasshopper sparrow is largely endangered because of its dependence on its prairie habitat, which have been taken away from them for other developments, such as agriculture fields. The subspecies – which was first discovered in 1902 – faced a population decline in the 1970s as prairie grasslands were being converted.

About 19 percent of the original dry prairies exist in Florida today.

In recent years, a decline was noted in all three conservation lands where they remained, reports the Audubon Florida, with 2016 reporting the lowest counts in history.

Avon Park Bombing Range: declined from 130 singing males in 1999 to only 10 in 2004
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park: declined from 150 a decade ago to only a few found on the property. 
Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area: as many as 140 singing males have been counted in the past but recent counts find about 60 singing males

Grasshopper sparrows are described as small, short-tailed birds that are usually heard before they are seen. They are named after one of their calls: a quiet buzz similar to that of a grasshopper.

There are twelve subspecies of the grasshopper sparrows throughout North America, Central America and the West Indies. There is only one subspecies, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, that breeds and lives in remote, treeless prairies in central Florida. 

The Florida grasshopper sparrow was listed as an endangered species in Florida in 1977, and federally listed as endangered in 1986. The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida launched a “Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Fund” to prevent the songbird’s extinction.