The Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla., closed the book on its first season breeding the critically endangered Florida grasshopper sparrow. The figurative book title? A Soaring Success.
Found exclusively on the dry prairies of central and south Florida, this species has lost approximately 85 percent of its natural habitat to agriculture. Nonnative fire ants, disease, and genetic bottlenecking are also factors hastening the decline of these birds. As of 2021, just over 100 sparrows were detected in their natural range.
Over its 28 years, Brevard Zoo has adopted the unofficial mission statement: We answer the call. From breeding imperiled species to rehabilitating sea turtles, the Zoo consistently makes space to care for animals in need.
The call came for Florida grasshopper sparrows. Recognizing the need to help these uniquely Floridian birds, Brevard Zoo joined a collaborative conservation effort to save this species with the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, United States Air Force, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Archbold Biological Station.
In 2019, the first sparrows moved into short-term housing in one of the Zoo’s behind-the-scenes areas. That following spring, promising courtship and nesting behaviors were seen, though none of the females laid fertile eggs.
“Seeing that behavior made us optimistic that we would have chicks within the next year or two if we could provide them with the ideal space,” said Kerry Sweeney, conservation manager at the Zoo.
In late 2020, Brevard Zoo launched an appeal to its community for money to build a customized, outdoor sparrow habitat that more closely mirrored the bird’s native prairies. Over $100,000 was raised.
The sparrows moved into their brand-new habitat in March 2021. The area was outfitted with native plants, perching, grasses for nesting, hollowed-out logs for shelter and more to provide the most natural environment possible.
“The sparrows spent the next year acclimating to their new space. Come spring, they began buzzing, and we felt pretty good that this was our year,” said Sweeney.
Experts carefully matched the genetics of the Zoo’s birds for pairing to ensure a healthy and diverse population. Of the four pairs matched to breed, none of the females had raised offspring before, so cautious optimism filled the air as the first breeding season began in March 2022.
The male sparrows kicked off the season as they audibly “buzzed” to attract their female partners, leading to warbling and trilling noises as the birds paired up. They then began building nests, and soon after, the first eggs were laid.
Grasshopper sparrows have a relatively short incubation time as eggs can hatch as soon as nine days after they are laid. The first chicks were born just weeks after breeding season had begun. After staying with their parents for 21 days, the chicks were moved to a different habitat and monitored to ensure their wellbeing before being released into their natural range.
The four breeding pairs continued the process of nest building, egg laying, hatching, and, once the chicks were moved, doing it all over again.
By the conclusion of the breeding season in September, a grand total of 43 sparrows were released. One pair alone produced 20 offspring during the season.
“Our success means we can further increase genetic diversity on the prairies and help increase the numbers even quicker than before, said Kelly Currier, conservation coordinator at the Zoo. “The sparrows desperately need this boost.”
The Florida grasshopper sparrows at Brevard Zoo are taking a much-deserved break as they prepare for another breeding season in spring of 2023.
“We hope to continue our success for years to come to help this imperiled species,” said Kelly.
Photos Credit: © Brevard Zoo