The Grasshopper Sparrow

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With their buffy, plain feathers and an ultra flat head, Grasshopper Sparrows don’t make a huge statement. They simply run around the grass like an insectivorous mouse, and serenade the spring grasslands with their thin, weak, insect-y song. In other words: they’re fantastic.

Grasshopper Sparrow: denizen of prairies

Found in nearly every prairie type in North America, this unassuming, mousey little sparrow really represents the plains and shrub-steppes of the continent. They spend the summer in all 3 major prairie types and shrub-steppe grasslands, and populations of Grasshopper Sparrows also live in coastal prairies and dry prairies. In winter, almost all of the migratory populations fly to the Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands in Mexico, while some eastern populations migrate to grasslands in Costa Rica and the Caribbean.

All About: hidden grassy nests

I’m not going to summarize this animal here; I’d rather direct you to All About Birds: Life History of the Grasshopper Sparrow for that basic info.

What we can  go into more detail about here is pics from the field of their nesting habits and some Macaulay Library footage of these little fellas.

a bird nest woven with grass with six eggs inside, 3 of them are bigger with more speckles
Close-up of the grasshopper sparrow nest, with 3 parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird eggs (larger), photo by Rachel Roth
a picture of prairie grass from above, with a nest barely visible under one of the plants
Grasshopper Sparrow nest tucked under a leadplant, photo by Rachel Roth

These pictures feature the same nest. From above you can really appreciate just how hidden their nests are. This Grasshopper Sparrow pair built their nest under a young leadplant (Amorpha canescens), and was parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds (the three larger, more speckled eggs) which make a living stalking prairie birds to dump eggs in their nests.

tiny blind and pink baby birds in a grassy nest with one unhatched egg and little tufts of fluff
Fresh baby grasshopper sparrows, photo by Rachel Roth

Tiny and helpless and freshly hatched, these altricial nestlings lying on the ground are vulnerable to just about everything: snakes, ants, skunks. But they make this lifestyle work even in dry habitat types with extensive bare ground.

All About: an insect-y song

This Grasshopper Sparrow from Billings, North Dakota, sings his typical song type. Listening for this thin little trill is the best way to spot these little birds out on the plains.

On the other hand, this little sparrow in Saint Ann, Jamaica, demonstrates the second song type. They often sing it while doing flight displays, but as this tiny gentleman demonstrates, that’s not always the case.

Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow’s story sparks flashbacks of the 1990 extinction of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. We’ve seen this before. By the time people intervened with the duskies, the population was so small that they couldn’t find a single female to start a captive breeding program.

This time, biologists are determined to get it right.

a biologist holds a florida grasshopper sparrow with its back to the camera, and they gently stretch its wing out
Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife

Florida GRSP does not migrate. It’s a truly unique subspecies found in Florida’s dry prairies. It’s critically endangered on the federal level, and between 2016 – 2018 it was on a rapid countdown toward extinction.

With the rapid establishment of a captive breeding program, which conservation collaborators had to develop from scratch, things are finally looking hopeful for these little birds. As of September 2020, 65% of the young born in the wild had at least one captive-bred parent.

Not without difficulty, though. They’ve been waging war on invasive red fire ants, by dumping boiling water into the ant nests. Predator-exclusion fences give the birds an extra level of protection. In combination, these efforts help the bird rebound while conservationists work on the more fundamental problems that led to this decline in the first place.

Need more Florida Grasshopper Sparrow?

Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark features Florida Grasshopper Sparrows, like these 20-day-old fledglings at White Oak Conservation Center.

And one of our favorite podcasts, the American Birding Podcast, interviewed Andrew Walker from Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida about this project in a fantastic episode.

A row of white wooden boxes without doors have circles of grass tucked into them
Florida grasshopper sparrow carriers. These boxes transport the grasshopper sparrows to their new home and are lined with grasses. Florida Fish and Wildlife, Photo by Karen Parker

The Best Biome: a podcast for grassland lovers

Sources/Further Reading:

  1. Grasshopper Sparrow life history, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Grasshopper_Sparrow/lifehistory 
  2. A Sparrow Back from the Brink with Andrew Walker, February 18, 2021, American Birding Podcast by the American Birding Association. https://www.aba.org/a-sparrow-back-from-the-brink-with-andrew-walrke/
  3. Grasshopper Sparrow, Species Conservation Profiles, Partners in Flight. https://partnersinflight.org/species/grasshopper-sparrow/
  4. White Oak Conservation, Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Disease Risk Analysis. Workshop Report 9, April, 2019
  5. Song and Garden Birds of North America by Alexander Wetmore (1964)
  6. Pittman, C. (2019, August 26). Fight to save nearly extinct sparrow turns into fight over how to save it. Retrieved from https://www.tampabay.com/environment/fight-to-save-nearly-extinct-sparrow-turns-into-fight-over-how-to-save-it-20190313/
  7. Pittman, C. (2019, August 26). Government agencies Release endangered florida Grasshopper sparrows into wild, despite concerns. Retrieved from https://www.tampabay.com/environment/government-agencies-release-endangered-florida-grasshopper-sparrows-into-wild-despite-concerns-20190509/
  8. Pittman, C. (2021, February 10). Bringing back the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, the ‘most Endangered bird’ in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/captive-breeding-save-florida-grasshopper-sparrows
  9. Platt, J. (2018, February 05). Is this the year the Florida grasshopper sparrow goes extinct? Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/is-this-the-year-the-florida-grasshopper-sparrow-goes-extinct/

Did you spot an error or have questions about this post? Email Rachel Roth.

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