Don’t Forget Me: Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

Florida Grasshopper Sparrow
Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

Before you proceed any further, I kindly encourage you to take a couple of minutes to enjoy this picture. Isn’t this bird simply gorgeous?

This is the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus). Have you seen or heard of this species before? No? You are not alone.

Before I watched the documentary ‘Racing Extinction’, I had absolutely no knowledge of this species. From this show, I learnt that there are approximately 150 of them (or even lesser) left in the wild restricted only to Florida. This information troubled me and led me to question myself. Why is it that I know so much about some species and often have no idea about the other declining or endangered species out there? Is this because there was not much hype about it till ‘Racing Extinction’ featured it? Or are birds too often ignored in initiatives or campaigns that raise awareness about endangered species? I don’t really know. But BIRDS MATTER along with every other species.

I then started searching and reading up on this species to learn a little bit more about them and why have they become highly endangered. I have included a summary of the information gathered in the last two weeks so we can all discover this species together, and perhaps even fall in love.

Meet the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow was first discovered in 1901 by Edgar Mearns on the Kissimmee Prairie. It is one of the four subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrows residing in North America. It is fairly small bird measuring about 13 cm in length and weighing about 17 to 18 grams.

Their plumage is well suited for their habitat providing them excellent camouflage and making them very hard to detect.

Plumage – layers of feather covering a bird. This also includes the feather pattern, arrangement and colour.

Why Grasshopper?
This sparrow’s song is similar to a quiet buzz of a grasshopper, hence their name. Their song begins with three low pitched notes and progresses to a longer and higher pitched buzz.

Habitat and Distribution

Florida Grasshopper Sparrows are restricted to central and south interior Florida within dry prairie ecosystems. A dry prairie ecosystem has low grass and shrub cover spreading over a vast expanse of land with poorly drained soil with a lack of trees.

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrows are habitat specialists and they do not migrate or wander very far from their birth place.. Prairies preferred by the Florida Grasshopper Sparrows are dominated by Saw palmettos (Serenoa repens) and Dwarf oaks (Quercus minima). Their habitat also needs to be virtually treeless, undisturbed and burned every 2 – 3 years to thrive successfully.

Saw Palmetto
Saw Palmetto

This Florida subspecies is currently found in three public properties and a few private lands in Florida.

The three public properties:

(1) Avon Park Bombing Range
1999 – 130 individuals recorded
2004 – 10 individuals recorded
2012 – only 1 singing male recorded

(2)Kissimmee Prairie
2002 – 150 individuals recorded
2011 – 21 individuals recorded
2012 – 14 individuals recorded

(3)Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area
2012 – 60 singings males recorded

Population grass
Numbers of Florida Grasshopper Sparrow populations across the three public lands (Source: Status Brief Audubon Florida 2012)

Diet
The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow’s diet consists of seeds (sedge seeds, star grass seeds) and invertebrates such as grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, beetles, flies and weevils.

Reproduction and Nesting

The sparrows nest between April and July. During this time, the males sing for a few hours in a day. The Florida Sparrows make their nests with shallow excavations on the ground made of grass or grass like vegetation often under Saw palmettos.

The females lay about 3 to 5 eggs. Great thing is, the fellas don’t just sit around. They help raise the young too. Their young fledge within 9 to 10 days.

Signs of trouble

Photo 2A wildlife survey carried out between 1980 – 1982 revealed an alarming count of only 93 individuals across seven sites. The sparrow was then listed as federally endangered in 1986. Since then, the population has continued to decline despite conservation efforts such as habitat management.

Several reasons were suspected for this continued decline. Habitat loss and alteration, sub-standard habitat management efforts, flightless chick mortality by fire ants, and diseases. Now as a result of their small numbers, genetic problems have risen as well.

The precious habitats have undergone severe alterations with conversions to domestic pasture grass. It is believed that 91% of their habitat has been destroyed. Hence, sound management of their habitat is extremely vital for their survival.

What’s Next?

Conservation actions have been proposed by Audubon Florida to give this beautiful species a fighting chance.

Some of the actions include: (a) consistently maintain the highest standards possible to manage the sparrow’s current habitats, (b) encourage and increase research initiatives into genetic problems and diseases, and (c) explore effective methods to enable the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow’s captive breeding.

The above was proposed and published in a status update document in July 2012. I could not find any other up to date information expanding on the progress of the suggested actions. I am hoping wholeheartedly that something positive will transpire extremely soon as the thought of losing this special species forever is really heartbreaking. If anyone knows of any updates, kindly share that with everyone in the comments.

References/Further Reading:
(1) Delany, M.F. & Linda, S.B. (1998) Characteristics of Florida Grasshopper Sparrow NestsWilson Bulletin, 110, 136-139.
(2) Shriver, W.G. & Vichery, P.D. (1999) Aerial Assessment of Potential Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Habitat: Conservation in a Fragmented LandscapeFlorida Field Naturalist27, 1-9.
(3) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1999) South Florida multi-species recovery plan.
Atlanta, Georgia.
(4) Pranty, B. & Jr.Tucker, J.W. (2006) Ecology and Management of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Pages 14-42 in R.F. Noss, editor. Land of Fire and Water. Proceedings of the Florida Dry Prairie Conference.
(5) Audubon Florida (2012) 2012 Status Brief on the Endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Tallahassee, Florida.
Photo/Video Credits:
Header - Dry_Prairie_Final 2010 - Ann F. Johnson
Photo 1 - Audubon Florida
Photo 2 - Materiamedicaresource
Photo 3 - Christina Evans - Audubon Florida
Video 1 - Audubon Magazine YouTube Channel
Video 2 - Florida Wildlife Corridor YouTube Channel
Video 3 - Discovery TV Channel