In Free Fall

Last Sunday the Orlando Sentinel reported the grim news that the population of this bird, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, has plunged so far and so fast that it may go extinct in as little as three years.

Florida grasshopper sparrows are a unique non-migratory subspecies of the grasshopper sparrow that live their entire life in Florida's dry prairie habitat.  Their loyalty to this habitat has made them endangered.

90% of the prairie is gone, converted to cattle ranches, farms, and development in the past 150 years.   By 1986 the Florida grasshopper sparrow was placed on the Endangered Species List.  The birds held their own in three remaining prairie preserves until recent population surveys found less than 200 individuals left.  It is now the most endangered bird in the continental U.S.

Loss of habitat obviously caused this bird's decline but scientists say other factors have sent it over the cliff.  One factor is fire ants, accidentally imported from South America in the 1930's.  Florida grasshopper sparrows nest on the ground.  The fire ants overwhelm their nests and eat the baby birds so there are no young sparrows to reach maturity in the next generation.

If this trend continues Florida grasshopper sparrows will go extinct when the last adults die.  Meanwhile U.S. Fish and Wildlife and other members of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group consider this a wildlife emergency and are focusing intensive efforts to save the bird.

Back in January 2008, Dan Irizarry visited a banding station at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve where he photographed this bird.  Little did he know... little did we know... that this may be one of the last living Florida grasshopper sparrows on earth.

If you've seen a Florida grasshopper sparrow you are lucky indeed.

(photo by Dan Irizarry. Click on the image to see Dan's Flickr set from Kissimmee.)


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