Back in 2020, we called on our community to help us support an extra-special Give From the Heart appeal: Saving the United States’ most endangered bird from extinction. Thanks to your support, we met our goal of raising $100,000 to build a customized outdoor habitat for Florida grasshopper sparrows. We are happy to share that we are now entering our first-ever breeding season!
This species first arrived at the Zoo in September 2019 after we recognized the need to keep these uniquely Floridian birds in our state and join the breeding program for these sparrows. After living in a temporary habitat, our grasshopper sparrows moved into their brand-new outdoor area in March of 2021. The area includes native plants, perching, grasses for nesting, hollowed-out logs for shelter and multiple water and seed sources to provide the most natural environment possible for our sparrows. This habitat is located in a behind-the-scenes area of the Zoo.
Over the past year, we have watched our group of sparrows become comfortable and confident in their new home and decided to move forward with breeding this critically endangered species. A team of Florida grasshopper sparrow experts carefully matched the genetics of our birds for pairing to ensure the healthiest and most diverse population. This process is similar to the one used for pairing our Perdido Key beach mice.
While we will not name their offspring as they will be released into the wild, we did give house names to our resident sparrows to make caring for them more natural. Our four pairs of sparrows are Eddie and Peg, Gator and Ava, Vince and Wild One, and Landon and Karen. Each bird receives a small band on its leg as a hatchling so that caretakers can easily identify them in both human care and in their natural range to track population.
While the ages of our sparrows vary, none of our four paired females have raised offspring before and only two of the males have. For this reason, we have an additional female sparrow who will act as a surrogate if one of our breeding pairs is disinterested in raising chicks. Other facilities have had success using surrogates as opposed to hand-rearing chicks whose parents do not show interest in them.
We are currently in the beginning stages of breeding season as our males can be heard “buzzing” to attract their female partners. Other vocalizations will follow as the season continues. Warbling and trilling will communicate that our sparrows have paired. Nest building will then occur followed by egg laying. The birds are all exhibiting natural behaviors for this time of year, so all is looking promising for a successful season.
Grasshopper sparrows have a relatively short incubation time as eggs can hatch as soon as nine days after they are laid. After a few weeks, the chicks will be independent enough to be released into their natural range and their parents will breed and lay eggs throughout the breeding season, which can go through September.
All of our pairs’ offspring will be released, adding to the valuable population of their species left in the wild and contributing to the survival of Florida grasshopper sparrows as a whole. As of 2021, just over 100 Florida grasshopper sparrows were detected in their natural range.
This species is only found in a few areas in Central and South Florida and have lost approximately 85% of their natural habitat to agriculture. Nonnative fire ants (which invade nests and feed on chicks), disease and genetic bottlenecking may be hastening the sparrows’ decline.
Brevard Zoo is an independent, not-for-profit organization that receives no recurring government funding for our operating costs. Your generous support enables us to continue to serve our community and continue our vital animal wellness, education and conservation programs.