During each year’s Safari Under the Stars gala, attendees have the opportunity to rally around a specific cause as part of our “Give From the Heart” (GFTH) appeal. Past GFTH projects include the Exceptional Nature Space, specialized veterinary equipment and an expansion of the jaguar habitat. This year, we’re calling on you to support what may be one of the most important initiatives in the Zoo’s history: saving the United States’ most endangered bird from extinction.
Found exclusively on the dry prairies of central and south Florida, Florida grasshopper sparrows are in major trouble. They have lost approximately 85% of their natural habitat to agriculture and are now restricted to just three protected areas and one private property. Nonnative fire ants (which invade nests and feed on chicks), disease and genetic bottlenecking may be hastening the sparrows’ decline.
In 2014, it became clear that land-management efforts alone were not enough to save these birds from extinction, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, United States Fish and Wildlife Service and several animal care facilities began a breeding program. It took a few years to figure out, but more than 100 captive-bred individuals were released in 2019—many of which were observed nesting this year.
Last year, one of the participating facilities announced their withdrawal from the breeding program. Unable to find a local breeding center to fill this void, FWC and USFWS prepared to send the birds to another part of the country.
We recognized the need to keep these uniquely Floridian birds within the borders of our state and built short-term housing for three pairs in one of our behind-the-scenes barns. The first sparrows arrived at the Zoo in September 2019.
Though none of the females laid fertile eggs this spring, we observed numerous promising courtship and nesting behaviors. This makes us optimistic that we will have chicks within the next year or two, most of which will likely be released to help replenish the wild population.
But we need your help to make that happen. While our current sparrow enclosures meet all of the birds’ needs, we can do better; we’re planning to construct an outdoor habitat that more closely mirrors the dry prairies to which these animals are adapted and adequately prepares the chicks for life in the wild. That means more space to fly, forage and perch; and exposure to the sun, wind, rain and temperature changes. This build will cost an estimated 100,000 dollars.
As you may have heard, Safari Under the Stars is going virtual this year—and everyone is invited! RSVP now for the live broadcast (scheduled to take place on Saturday, September 26 at 6 p.m.) to learn more about this critical endeavor.
Remember, the power to prevent extinction is in all of our hands. If you just can’t wait until the event to make a contribution, click here to donate.