Florida lab is last hope for sparrow facing extinction

Posted January 3, 2018 3:19 p.m. EST

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The future of a nearly extinct Florida bird hinges on a captive breeding program in a wildlife facility in Loxahatchee.

The Florida grasshopper sparrow, a small ground-nesting bird that makes Florida its year-round home, has been the victim of a sudden and somewhat mysterious decline. Even though a pair of these industrious birds can produce as many as 25 offspring a year, they've been vanishing in the Central Florida dry prairies they call home.

"This tiny little songbird will disappear unless we take action now," said Paul Reillo, a biologist and ecological geneticist, who founded the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, a lab nicknamed "Jurassic Park" by its Loxahatchee neighbors.

The nonprofit organization works with government and other research organizations to support species in crisis, everything from the mountain bongo antelope in Kenya to the red-browed Amazon parrot in Brazil.

And these days, it's the Florida grasshopper sparrow, which is vanishing in a habitat that is being degraded by land development, cattle grazing, man-made pollution and climate change.

"This is what can happen in very short periods of time when drastic changes in the ecosystem occurs," Reillo said. "Clearly, in 2017, the bottom fell out."

If nothing is done, the birds would disappear, just as the dusky seaside sparrow did 30 years ago, Reillo said. By the time scientists tried to intervene with that species, there were just five males left in the wild population. And when they died off, so did the species.

So to save the few dozen Florida grasshopper sparrows still in the wild, some are being trapped in large nets and transported to Reillo's facility, where they are put in protected makeshift habitats to breed and be studied for a mysterious parasitic illness that appears to be killing so many of them.

"It's an animal that has a hard time adapting, and its immune system hasn't kept up to the changes in its environment," Reillo said.

Much of the birds' natural habitat has been lost as the dry prairies have been flooded or turned into pasture land for grazing cattle. The introduction of cattle paved the way for invasive fire ants, which feast on the ground-level hatchlings.

Climate change has altered the pattern and frequency of the rains, which interfere with the birds' internal calendar that dictates their mating season. In 2016, heavy rains drowned an entire cycle of nests.

As for the parasite, Reillo theorizes that it is something that is alien to the prairie, something that may have been introduced by the forms of bacteria that come from fertilizer based on human wastes, and from the contaminants picked up by migratory birds that swoop in and out of the sparrow's shrinking habitat on the edges of what Reillo describes as a "messy, increasingly urbanized world."

"It makes life very difficult for a bird that can't get away," Reillo said. "It means captive breeding is the only way out."

But shielding the birds from their natural environment and raising them through captive breeding has its limits, too. It can produce young chicks, but the birds don't develop as they would in the wild.

"The problem is they make poor parents," Reillo said. "They need to make nests and rear birds, but they don't have the competency to become good parents.

"The answer going forward isn't only to build a better sparrow but to build better parents."

I asked Reillo if the captive breeding program could be construed as playing with nature in an unnatural way, and whether it would be better to let nature take its course.

"It's ignorant to suggest that nature would take care of itself to take care of the problems that we have created as people," he said. "We will have a biodiversity collapse."

The Florida grasshopper sparrow, he said, won't be the last Florida wildlife species to vanish if we do nothing, he said. The Cape Sable seaside sparrow is next.

"This is a litmus test of what we're going to see with other ground-nesting birds," he said. "We can't kick this down the road and say this is a one-off thing."

Frank Cerabino writes for The Palm Beach Post. Email: fcerabino(at)pbpost.com.

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