April 2018 Bird Photo of the Month

© Maria Heffernan
Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)

Although the Grasshopper Sparrow eats grasshoppers, its favorite insect, the Grasshopper Sparrow is, according to ornithologists named after the insect sounds it makes. What a lovely pattern on its feathers. Notice how it holds onto that tiny branch, its nails curving, toes crossing.  Weighing less than an ounce, it does not bend the twig. Found on grasslands and prairies, it forages exclusively on the ground for insects and seeds (panic grass), thus difficult to photograph or find, especially with its coloring, unless the male as it likes to do, climbs atop a stalk to sing. Due to loss of prairies and grasslands, the populations have drastically declined.  

In Florida, we have two subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrows: visiting migrants: this photo is of the A. s. pratensis, the Eastern Grasshopper Sparrow, that migrates from as far north as Maine and winters (November-April) throughout the state. Perhaps in its evolutionary history, the second subspecies A. s. floridanus decided to be a year-round resident finding Florida’s habitat and food ideal as many of us do and evolved as a nonmigrant.  However, there has been much loss of our dry prairies, no periodic burning as habitats require, invasion of fire ants impacting the ground nests, flooding, and pathogens resistant leading to a 95% decline in population. Thus A. s. floridanus is listed since 1986 as federally Endangered with less than 50 A. s. floridanus Grasshopper Sparrows remaining in South Central Florida, (sadly, now only in Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area). This rare Grasshopper subspecies primarily is identified by their song, location, and the time of year present (May-July) indicating it breeds here.  These sparrows live less than 3 years, hardly time to expand its population even though scientists have been studying the species intently and have had a captive breeding program, feeding each chick by hand.  So, let’s appreciate these little Grasshopper Sparrows.

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon Society  

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