There's new hope for saving the U.S.'s most endangered bird

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Hopes to Save Endangered Bird

Four tiny newborn chicks chirping away at the Rare Species Conservancy Foundation in Loxahatchee, Florida, represent a beacon of hope for one of North America's rarest birds, the Florida grasshopper sparrow.

Fewer than 150 of these critically endangered birds live in their only habitat, the dry prairie grasslands of central Florida. Now we can add four more to the count. The new chicks are the first Florida grasshopper sparrows to ever be bred and hatched in captivity.

The chicks hatched on May 9 and 10 and are "making good progress," said Ken Warren, a spokesperson for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, one of several organizations working to save the species from extinction. The birds' population has declined from an estimated 1,000 birds less than 20 years ago, mostly due to habitat loss but also possibly due to egg predation by invasive fire ants.

The new generation of Florida grasshopper sparrows almost didn't happen. Their parents came from two nests of newborn birds discovered in 2015 by biologists who have been monitoring the species. At the time it looked as if both nests would fail. One was in a site that could have easily become flooded. The second nest had lost its mother, for unknown reasons. The two clutches, totaling six birds, were brought into the conservancy and hand-raised. Two additional juvenile birds were also captured to help raise the chicks.

Last month a few of the now-adult captive sparrows started to exhibit mating behavior. One nesting attempt failed, for unknown reasons, but the second resulted in the four eggs that hatched last week.

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Warren said the priority will be to observe the chicks to make sure they continue to do well. The chicks will grow quickly and are expected to be fully independent within three weeks of birth. Eventually they'll reach their full size of five inches in length.

Meanwhile, work continues on efforts to better understand and protect the few secretive birds that remain in the wild. "Each year we hire a team of highly qualified field biologists who monitor the breeding pairs and install predator deflection fences around nests to increase the probability of survival," said Erin Ragheb, assistant research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "This is a challenging task because the birds spend most of their time foraging on the ground and can be difficult to observe among the dense grasses. Locating and protecting their nests requires careful observation skills and a lot of patience." That paid off when last year's nests were discovered and saved.

Ragheb's work focuses on identifying the sparrow's life stages. Last year she coauthored a paper that examined the songs male Florida grasshopper sparrows use to attract potential mates. She also focuses on "providing recommendations to land managers on how to create or preserve habitat that is most suitable for the birds," a necessary task because what little remains of the sparrow's natural habitat is split between state and federal land and privately held cattle pastures.

As for the new chicks, they'll probably spend the rest of their lives at the conservancy. "Right now there is no plan to release them back into the wild," Warren said. "The probability is that they will remain in captivity and be kind of foundational to a colony we hope to establish." If enough birds are born in captivity, some may be released back into the wild, he said. "This is the first step."

Check out some other endangered species:

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There's new hope for saving the U.S.'s most endangered bird

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(REUTERS/Nicky Loh)

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Pileated gibbonon the tree in real nature at Khaoyai national park, Thailand.

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A greater bamboo lemur is seen in this picture released by Conservation International on July 22, 2008. Researchers in Madagascar have found critically endangered greater bamboo lemurs living far from the only other place they were known to exist, raising hopes for the survival of the species, experts said on Tuesday.

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A Dendrobates leucomelas frog is pictured at a terrarium in Caracas November 30, 2015. Venezuelan frogs and toads are in critical danger due to climate change as rising temperatures complicate reproduction and spread a deadly fungus, say scientists, who liken the species to canaries in a coalmine warning of imminent danger. The survival of a group of nearly 20 frog and toad species, which top Venezuela's list of endangered species, may rest on a small group of academics in a Caracas laboratory attempting to recreate the amphibians' natural reproductive conditions. Picture taken on November 30, 2015.

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A zoo keeper holds a baby Philippine crocodile during the annual weigh-in to record animals vital statistics at ZSL London Zoo in London on August 21, 2014.

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The "Indian" or "Java" rhinoceros is listed as a critically endangered of extinction, this rare animal has only one horn which marks the main difference with the African type.

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Cuban Greater Funnel-eared Bat. 

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A critically endangered small tooth sawfish roams its new home at Oceanworld in Sydney on August 18, 2011. Measuring over 1.5 metres in length, sawfish have adapted to live in both salt and fresh water, while their long saw-like rostrum (nose) has evolved to expertly forage for food under the sandy ocean floor.

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Madagascar Pochard

(Photo by darwin_initiative via Flickr)

A Hypsiboas crepitans frog is pictured at a terrarium in Caracas November 30, 2015. Venezuelan frogs and toads are in critical danger due to climate change as rising temperatures complicate reproduction and spread a deadly fungus, say scientists, who liken the species to canaries in a coalmine warning of imminent danger. The survival of a group of nearly 20 frog and toad species, which top Venezuela's list of endangered species, may rest on a small group of academics in a Caracas laboratory attempting to recreate the amphibians' natural reproductive conditions. Picture taken on November 30, 2015.

(REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Ema Elsa, a nine-year-old Black Rhino, lies next to her newborn calf in their enclosure at Chester Zoo in Chester, northern England October 5, 2012. The female calf which is less than 48 hours old will join an international breeding program for the critically endangered species.

(REUTERS/Phil Noble)

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