The grasshopper sparrow, one of the most endangered birds in the continental part of the United States, has made a comeback only two years after it was on the verge of extinction, thanks to a captive-breeding program.
First discovered in 1902, the 13-cm buzzing feathered animal started to decline in the 1970s. By 2013, less than 2,000 Florida grasshopper sparrows remained. A captive-breeding program was then launched. In 2016, the first four captive-bred chicks hatched, and as the global population had dropped to only 80 birds – including only 20 breeding pairs – in 2018, biologists released captive-bred birds into the wild in 2019.
“It’s been a remarkable story,” says Joel Sartore, a photograph who worked on the species’ slide toward extinction for the National Geographic Photo Ark. “When we care about the ‘least among us,’ it can lead to broader environmental thinking, from consumer spending to saving rainforests.”
Following a final health check, captive-bred grasshopper sparrows are put in specifically designed crates and led to a screened aviary where they acclimate for a few hours before being set free. Now, some 250 birds have been released in Florida. Scientists have been proven right: offsprings of captive-bred sparrows thrive on their own and can boost the wild population. Not yet off the endangered list, the grasshopper sparrow still needs the program to grow its population. By keeping the bird in its natural habitat, we protect the ecosystem for “all the other beautiful, valuable species that go together with them,” says Craig Faulhaber, avian conservation coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.