The next phase of the whooping crane comeback is in Louisiana.
Here’s the story from the Associated Press (and note the “crane suits,” which sounds like my wardrobe):
NEW ORLEANS â€” A small group of some of the world’s rarest birds is set to be released later this month in Louisiana, where there hasn’t been a wild flock of whooping cranes for well over half a century.
The birds â€” named for a call that can be heard a half-mile away â€” are being flown in crates from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. They were raised there by people in â€œcrane suits,â€ shapeless robes that cover workersâ€™ bodies and faces so the birds will not become accustomed to humans.
Biologists are hoping to replicate success they’ve had nurturing a flock that migrates between Texas and Canada and creating a flock that migrates between Florida and Wisconsin. Worldwide, there are currently about 400 birds in the wild, up from only 22 in 1941.
â€œWe’ve waited so many years,â€ said Mary Lynch Courville, whose federal biologist father, John J. Lynch, documented Louisiana’s last wild flock at White Lake in 1939.
His aerial photographs showed â€œlittle white specks,â€ she said. â€œHis boss sent him a note saying, â€˜Are you sure it’s not litter?â€™â€
The new flock will be released in White Lake in southern Louisiana, where about 1Â½ acres of wetlands, including an artificial island, have been fenced in for the cranes, said Tom Hess, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The ends of the pen are rounded so the 5-foot-tall birds with the distinctive call won’t get hurt.
The pen is made of welded wire mesh panels, lined with plastic mesh and held together with plastic ties to ensure there’s nothing the birds can swallow or injure themselves on. Outside the pen, an electric fence deters predators.
Inside is a 70-foot diameter round pen covered with plastic mesh. People in crane suits â€” worn to keep the birds from thinking of humans as their parents or as animals that are safe to approach â€” will carry the birdsâ€™ crates into the smaller pen and release them.
After a week or so, crane-suited workers will let the birds into the larger pen. They will be free to fly but, hopefully will be coaxed into the pens at night with food.
Crawfish and other avian delicacies will be put on floating platforms that rise and fall with the water.
â€œWe want these birds to roost in the pens at night until they become acclimated to the marsh,â€ Hess said.
The last whooping crane in Louisiana was taken from White Lake to Texas in 1950 by Lynch, and the birds were one of the first animals on the U.S. endangered list.
The federal government approved release of the 10 young whooping cranes Monday. Snowstorms delayed their move earlier this year, so officials aren’t sure just when they’ll be flown in.
â€œThey were scheduled to fly last Tuesday,â€ said Bo Boehringer, spokesman for Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. â€œWe’re being told the rescheduled flight won’t be until the 15th. That’s weather permitting.â€
Records from early explorers and settlers noted whoopers in 35 U.S. states, six Canadian provinces and four Mexican states, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But as settlers filled in and farmed the fields, wet prairies and wetlands where they had lived and bred, their numbers plummeted to an estimated 1,300 in the 1860s and 600 by 1870.
By 1941 there were only 22 wild birds â€” six in the colony living year-round at White Lake, and 16 in a flock that migrated between Canada and Texas. A few were also living in captivity.
Louisiana’s flock had dwindled to a single bird by 1947; in 1950, Lynch and others caught that bird and took it to Texas. After that flock was down to 15, captive breeding started.
There are now an estimated 570 whooping cranes in the world. About 400 of them are in three wild flocks â€” the one that migrates from Texas to Canada and two created by conservationsts. Those include a flock that migrates between Florida and Wisconsin and a small non-migrating flock in Florida that, beset by drought and habitat loss, has been steadily shrinking and no longer gets captive-bred birds.
The Louisiana move is an important step forward for the U.S-Canadian recovery team, said John French, research manager at Patuxent. â€œSome of us have been agitating for and planning and looking for a way to release birds in Louisiana for quite a while.â€
About 170 captive birds allow breeding programs in Baraboo, Wis., Patuxent, Md., San Antonio, Texas, New Orleans, and Calgary, Canada.
The birds coming to Louisiana include a female from an egg laid last year at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species and sent to Patuxent to hatch.
They’ve been raised outside, so they shouldn’t have any trouble coping with the rest of Louisiana’s winter, said state wildlife biologist Carrie Salyers.
â€œThey’ve certainly been given a fair share of winter,â€ she said.
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