Florida bird may soon be extinct

A type of sparrow that lives only in Florida has mysteriously plunged in number so dramatically that scientists fear it will vanish forever well before the end of this decade.

Florida grasshopper sparrows, which inhabit grasslands in the state’s interior south of Orlando, have been listed as endangered for the past 26 years. But the furtive birds have all but disappeared in recent years from one of their last three prairie refuges and, in what has become a wildlife emergency, may now total fewer than 200 in just two counties, Osceola and Okeechobee.

The sparrows’ extinction would likely be the nation’s first loss of a bird since the late 1980s, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. That’s when the dusky seaside sparrow, also a Florida native, slipped out of existence. The threat of losing another bird unique to Florida alarms scientists, who also worry that the grasshopper sparrow’s rapid decline might be symptomatic of profound problems with the state’s dwindling prairie environment.

“This seems to be the most highly imperiled bird in all of mainland North America,” said Reed Noss, a biology professor at the University of Central Florida. “At the present rate of decline, it’s going to be extinct in as few as three years and, unbelievably, we don’t know why.”

The small bird is firmly adapted to giant expanses of “dry prairie.” Florida had more than 1.2 million acres of that treeless terrain, but 90 percent of it was turned into inhospitable cattle pasture by the end of the 20th century.

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