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 (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus), 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 bird, a subspecies of grasshopper sparrows, eats grasshoppers and sings like one, with a "tick, tick, buzz." It also runs — hidden by dry-prairie grasses — as much or more than it flies, bedeviling researchers' attempts to learn more about it.
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.