Florida grasshopper sparrows face extinction

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Florida’s rarest bird could be extinct within two years.

Despite $1 million worth of conservation efforts, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say Florida grasshopper sparrows are facing challenges in growing its population both in the wild and in captivity.

The sparrow is largely endangered because of its dependence on its natural habitat: the dry prairies of central Florida. 

The subspecies was first discovered in 1902. However, it faced a population decline in the 1970s as prairie grasslands were converted to improve cattle pastures, sod production and other agricultural purposes. About 19 percent of original dry prairies remain in Florida today.

A decline is noted in all three conservation lands where they remain, 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

If the grasshopper sparrow disappears, it would be the first bird species to go extinct in the U.S. since the dusky seaside sparrow did in 1987, reports the Tampa Bay Times

While captive breeding programs have seen recent successes, the birds have also fallen prey to a deadly disease. In 2015, the Rare Species Conservatory in Palm Beach County began breeding Florida grasshopper sparrows in captivity. Director Paul Reillo says the project has been challenged by the emergence of the disease linked to parasites in the birds' guts.

Grasshopper sparrows are small, short-tailed birds that are usually heard before they are seen, and 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. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.