By the mid-1970s, only four Mauritius kestrels remained in the wild, and many scientists had given them up for dead. Not Carl Jones. The Welsh biologist arrived in Mauritius, a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, determined to save the species at all costs. Using a number of innovative techniques, from artificial insemination to supplementary feeding, he was able to increase the population back to hundreds, where it continues to this day.
Several other bird species have also recovered after being reduced to a few individuals, including the California Condor, Whooping Crane, Laysan Duck, Crested Ibis, Black Robin, and Seychelles Magpie Robin. Jones himself saved four other species endemic to Mauritius: the Pink Pigeon, the 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 often work in the seemingly most hopeless of cases. Bringing a bird back from the sidelines is not easy, however: blood, sweat, tears, and especially money, are usually prerequisites.
This is where BirdWatching readers come in. While the above species are all on the way to recovery, many others are in dire straits. Here are 10 birds critically endangered worldwide, along with tips on how to help them.
Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is one of the rarest birds in the United States. Photo by Tatiana Villante / Audubon Photography Awards
Florida Grasshopper Sparrow
Where it lives: Florida
Estimated population: 100 (plus some captive bred birds)
Right now the United States is not home to any species of birds that are in imminent danger of blanking out. Certain US subspecies, on the other hand, are really endangered, in particular the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, which lives on dry prairies in the south-central part of its state of the same name.
Much of the problems with this subspecies are due to the conversion of their habitat for agricultural purposes. However, these skulkers also suffer in protected areas, even where wildlife managers have fenced off nests, fought invasive fire ants (the sparrow chicks swarm and devour), and tended the prairie with mandatory burns and tree clearing.
As recently as 20 years ago, there were around 1,000 Florida Grasshopper Sparrows, mostly on three large reservations, and their steep decline has stunned conservationists since then. “We searched for diseases but couldn’t find a clear smoking weapon,” said Paul Gray, Everglades science coordinator in Audubon Florida.
To solve the riddle, the sparrow protectors started a captive breeding program that costs around $ 1.2 million annually. Approximately 150 individuals were released in 2019 and early 2020, some of which, in a hopeful sign, have been seen nesting. “It’s very stressful work,” says Gray. “What if we blow it and they fail? We all love the little things and that weighs on us all. “
How to help: Both Audubon Florida and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Foundation have funding for Florida Grasshopper Sparrow’s recovery efforts.
Great crested grebes live on the high seas in southern Argentina. Invasive species have taken their toll and new dams threaten the wintering area. Photo by Francisco González Táboas / Wikimedia Commons
Great crested grebe
Where it lives: Patagonia
Estimated population: 750
The great crested grebe was only discovered in 1974 and nests on high lakes near the southern tip of Argentina, where it displays elaborate courtship that is reminiscent of some of its North American cousins.
“It’s an extremely pretty bird, very charismatic,” says Ignacio “Kini” Roesler, director of nature conservation at Aves Argentinas and researcher at the University of Buenos Aires who has studied the species for a decade. He particularly likes to visit the bird’s habitat and says: “The highland plateaus are such an amazing place, without miles of traces of human civilization.”
Unfortunately, the crested grebe’s isolation did not prevent him from being hit hard by human activity. The population has dropped from over 5,000 in the 1980s to 750 today. Invasive species are the main culprit, particularly the American mink, which can wipe out half a breeding colony in one fell swoop. Stuffed rainbow trout meanwhile devour algae-fighting invertebrates, causing algal blooms, which prevent the growth of aquatic plants that the great crested grebes need to nest.
Intensive trout and mink control efforts (along with predatory sea kelp gulls arriving on the scene after human waste) have managed to temporarily stabilize the grebe population. Now, however, the bird faces a new threat: the construction of two hydroelectric plants that will change the ecology of its main wintering area on the Argentine Atlantic coast. Climate change could deal an additional blow, say conservationists, by lowering water levels and increasing wind speeds in its breeding areas.
How to help: Donation to Aves Argentinas. In addition to money, Roesler is looking for optics and camping equipment. Or, volunteer with the organization’s Proyecto Macá Tobiano to conduct population monitoring and invasive species control in Patagonia.
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