The Florida grasshopper sparrow, found only in the central prairies of the state, experts calculate “less than five years” of survival, unless they manage to save the species in captive breeding sites.
“The population projections for 2018 are bleak, with perhaps as few as 15 to 20 birds in the wild,” conservationist Paul Reillo said in an interview with Efe.
The biologist, who created the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF), explained that this small songbird is endemic to the dry grassland ecosystem of central Florida and “has been declining precipitously in the last decade.”
“There is a great chance that the sparrow will disappear in the wild very soon,” Reillo lamented.
He assured that the Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus sannarum floridanus) faces many challenges, including a possible new disease, and that it can probably survive in small groups in less than five years.
The disappearance of more than 80% of its habitat has worried the federal and state environmental authorities, and academics, who see an opportunity to save it with the RSCF recovery program, in Loxahatchee, north of Miami.
Reillo said that captive breeding is now “the only viable option to save the sparrow.”
He said that currently they have in the RSCF conservation center 49 of these birds born in captivity and that “the prospects are good”.
He said the key is that they can successfully address some serious disease problems and develop a long-term aid strategy.
“The sparrow has already been raised successfully in captivity, establishing a protocol to expand the population and maintain it for long-term recovery,” he said.
The biologist recalled that among the factors that have contributed to its “decline” are the conversion of its habitat to agriculture, fire or red ants, climatic and hydrological changes, predators and diseases.
He added that they suspect the possibility of “new pathogens in the prairie that may be causing the rapid declines observed in recent years.”
“The flock in captivity has helped to reveal some of these pathogens, and we are doing everything possible to identify them (through genome sequencing) and control their impacts, especially in young birds, which are the most affected,” he explained.
The RSCF, in partnership with the Tropical Conservation Institute (TCI) of the International University of Florida (FIU), collects eggs in the grasslands and within 11 to 13 days of incubation these young are the hope of survival of the species, as soon as they mate and reproduce.
These sparrows and other threatened and endangered species, reared in Loxahatchee, faced last September the passage of Hurricane Irma.
Reillo said that at the moment it is not possible to know the impact of Irma on the sparrow, because the hurricane occurred after the breeding season when the birds dispersed in the landscape.
“Observing, monitoring and quantifying the wild population during this period is not logistically feasible,” he said.
However, he said that they do not expect Irma to have had a significant impact on the prairie or its residents, and that there is little visual evidence of harm.
The foundation also tries to rescue from its disappearance a species of antelope from East Africa, primates such as the golden lion tamarin and a variety of parrots.
These species together with the Florida Grasshopper sparrow, which is a non-migratory bird, can swell the list of species that have already disappeared in the state.
Among them, the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), the Bachman warbler or black-chested birijita (Vermivora bachmanii), the dark sea sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens) and the Caribbean monk seal (Neomonachus tropicalis).
The small sparrow and other threatened animal species also face the eventual “cancellation” of the Threatened Species Act (ESA), as proposed by Republican Congressman Rob Bishop.
This law, which since 1973 has protected the Florida panther and the manatee from extinction, has prevented more than 99% of the species included in the list from becoming extinct, such as the bald eagle, symbol of the United States.