An affectionate Labrador named Lily was being trained to help rescue one of North America’s rarest birds, the Florida grasshopper sparrow.
But something went terribly wrong.
Lily killed one of the endangered sparrows. The young bird was a collateral casualty in an escalating but possibly futile battle to save the Central Florida songbird from extinction.
Those responsible for her were horrified by what happened when Lily slipped into low grasses and saw palmettos of Osceola County’s Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area and quickly returned to her handlers with the bird seemingly unharmed in her mouth.
The moment was paralyzing for James Tucker, 53, who has used his doctorate in zoology to specialize in sparrow conservation.
“I think she was probably pretty proud of herself,” said Tucker, who blames himself for a lapse in diligence. “I was hoping the bird would be all right.”
During training, 2-year-old Lily had repeatedly picked up the scent of related, but not endangered, sparrows and followed it to their hidden nests, where she would sit sniffing calmly at eggs or chicks.
“In the first trial I had with her, I let her out of the truck, and in 2 1/2 minutes she was sitting there sniffing at a nest,” Tucker said.
Despite the July 19 incident, federal officials are willing to give Lily another chance at finding the birds. She is slated for more training, during which she will initially be muzzled and leashed. Her handlers still believe her sense of smell and search instincts can be a valuable tool in the effort to thwart an extinction some fear could happen within a few years.
Lily’s assignment was to find a small bird known for its insect-like “buzz,” a subspecies of grasshopper sparrows that lives a hidden life in vast, treeless prairies, an ecosystem also at risk of vanishing.
The roots of Lily’s involvement go back to last year, when efforts on behalf of the sparrow depended largely on volunteers. Among them was Jim Cox, a former state biologist and president of the Florida Ornithological Society who is now director of the Stoddard Bird Lab at Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee. Cox has long studied a variety of sparrows.
Hearing the alarm over Florida grasshopper sparrows, Cox went to Three Lakes to ramp up research. During five visits, he managed to band seven adults, confirming what he knew: Catching them is incredibly hard. “You are in wide-open terrain, and it sees you long before you see it,” Cox said. “You can’t hide, and it can wait you out.”
Nearly 30 researchers spent weeks this spring and summer finding 14 nests, only five of which produced birds that went into the wild.
Cox knew that canines are used worldwide for wildlife conservation, and his home turf is surrounded by quail-hunting estates that use high-caliber retrieving dogs. He arranged for an estate owner to donate the $4,000 Lab.
Identified as passive and low-key, Lily was trained in the basics of obeying but not in retrieving. Cox put her to work tracking Bachman’s sparrows and eastern grasshopper sparrows, neither of which are endangered. She became a “committed sparrow dog” who approached nest after nest and “never tried to snatch a nestling,” he said.
In late May, Lily was packed up for her first training session at Three Lakes, where nearly all of the few hundred surviving Florida grasshopper sparrow are thought to live. During her second training outing, Tucker let her out of her kennel shortly after sunrise. At nearly the same time, a sparrow with food in its mouth flew by.
It was a “Wow!” moment. The birds rarely present themselves like that, and a sparrow with food is on the way to young birds – which researchers want to find.
Cox and others think the alert Lily picked up on a young, scrambling sparrow that had just left its nest and was days from being able to fly. Having never been trained for such an encounter, the Lab may have responded to an innate urge to retrieve. The result, Cox said, was a “real tragedy.”