The unique dry prairie region supports distinctive subspecies of other birds, including the Florida Burrowing Owl...
During the 20th century Florida saw the extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Carolina Parakeet, and Dusky Seaside Sparrow. A last-ditch conservation effort tried to save Dusky Seaside Sparrows in the 1970s. Captive breeding efforts were tried, but the bird still disappeared into extinction in 1987, a victim of habitat loss. The Dusky’s long shadow looms over current efforts to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Have scientists and conservationists learned enough in the last 30 years to save another imperiled Florida sparrow? Will society put that knowledge into action to save the bird?
Florida Grasshopper Sparrows survive at only a few precious places in Florida, including a wildlife management area, a state park, and an Air Force training range.
Map courtesy of Archbold Biological Station. View in Google Maps.
Reasons for the decline include land uses as varied as cattle ranching, citrus growing, and clearing for housing developments, as well as predation by spotted skunks and—incredibly—the tiny, invasive fire ant.
In the late 1800s, large-scale land drainage for agriculture and development began in the northern Everglades. Much of what was once dry prairie is now pastures for cattle. Today, cattle ranchers play an important role in conservation by keeping land in grass rather than converting pastures into housing developments. But in the past dry prairie was drained and planted with exotic vegetation such as South American bahiagrass to create cattle pastures. These prairie-to-pasture conversions degraded the habitat quality of dry prairie.
And just in the last 75 years, Florida’s human population has dramatically increased from around 2 million to more than 20 million residents. Continued land development has fragmented the remaining dry prairie, which now exists in isolated habitat islands of conservation lands. Meanwhile, housing developments continue to expand and put pressure on Florida’s wildlands.
Citrus groves are almost synonymous with central Florida and the northern Everglades. Twice a year orange blossoms perfume the air of the region, but citrus has sometimes come at the expense of Florida’s birdlife. Many groves were planted on converted dry prairie that was likely home to Florida Grasshopper Sparrows in the past.