By the mid-1970s, only four Mauritius Kestrels remained in the wild, and many scientists had given them up for dead. Not Carl Jones, however. The Welsh biologist arrived on Mauritius, a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, determined to save the species at all costs. Employing a suite of innovative techniques, from artificial insemination to supplemental feeding, he was able to boost the population back into the hundreds, where it persists to this day.
Several other bird species have likewise rebounded after being reduced to just a few individuals, including the California Condor, Whooping Crane, Laysan Duck, Crested Ibis, Black Robin, and Seychelles Magpie-Robin. Jones himself saved four additional species endemic to the country of Mauritius: the Pink Pigeon, Echo Parakeet, Rodrigues Fody, and Rodrigues Warbler, each of which had a population below 20 at its lowest point.
These successes show that conservation efforts do often work in even the most seemingly hopeless cases. Yet bringing a bird back from the brink doesn’t come easy: blood, sweat, tears, and, especially, money are usually prerequisites.
That’s where BirdWatching readers come in. While the aforementioned species are all on the road to recovery, plenty of others find themselves in dire straits. Here are 10 birds worldwide perilously close to extinction, along with tips on how to help them.
Florida Grasshopper Sparrow
Where it lives: Florida
Estimated population: 100 (plus some captive-bred birds)
At the moment, the mainland United States hosts no bird species in imminent danger of winking out. Certain U.S. subspecies, on the other hand, are in real jeopardy, most notably the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, which inhabits dry prairies in the south-central portion of its namesake state.
Much of this subspecies’ troubles can be traced to the conversion of its habitat for agricultural uses. Yet these skulkers are also suffering in protected areas, even where wildlife managers have fenced in nests, done battle with invasive fire ants (which swarm and devour sparrow chicks), and maintained the prairie with prescribed burns and tree removal.
As recently as 20 years ago, roughly 1,000 Florida Grasshopper Sparrows endured, mostly on three large reserves, and their precipitous decline since then has baffled conservationists. “We have searched for disease but not found a clear smoking gun,” says Paul Gray, Audubon Florida’s Everglades science coordinator.
As they race to solve the mystery, the sparrow’s protectors have launched a captive-breeding program, at a cost of some $1.2 million a year. About 150 individuals were released in 2019 and early 2020, some of which, in a hopeful sign, have been observed nesting. “It is very stressful work,” Gray says. “What if we blow it and they don’t make it? We all love the little things, and that weighs on all of us.”
Where it lives: Patagonia
Estimated population: 750
Not discovered until 1974, the Hooded Grebe nests on high-elevation lakes near the southern tip of Argentina, where it performs elaborate courtship displays reminiscent of some of its North American cousins.
“It’s an extremely handsome bird, very charismatic,” says Ignacio “Kini” Roesler, conservation director for Aves Argentinas and a researcher at University of Buenos Aires, who has been studying the species for the past decade. He especially enjoys visiting the bird’s habitat, saying, “The highland plateaus are such an amazing place, with no trace of human civilization for miles around.”
Unfortunately, the grebe’s isolation hasn’t prevented it from being hit hard by human activity. The population has plunged from over 5,000 in the 1980s to 750 today. Invasive species are the main culprit, particularly American mink, which can wipe out half a breeding colony in one fell swoop. Stocked rainbow trout, meanwhile, devour algae-controlling invertebrates, thereby causing algae blooms that prevent the growth of a water plant the grebes need for nesting.
Intensive efforts to control trout and mink (along with predatory Kelp Gulls, which arrive on the scene following human detritus) have succeeded in momentarily stabilizing the Hooded Grebe population. Now, however, the bird faces a new threat: the construction of two hydroelectric dams that will alter the ecology of its main wintering site on Argentina’s Atlantic coast. Climate change could deal an added blow, conservationists say, lowering water levels and increasing wind speeds on its breeding grounds.
How to help: Donate to Aves Argentinas. In addition to money, Roesler is seeking optics and camping equipment. Or volunteer with the organization’s Proyecto Macá Tobiano, doing population monitoring and invasive-species control in Patagonia.