Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Whooping Cranes arrive in Louisiana

A group of some of rarest and largest birds in the world is settling in to a new home in Vermilion Parish.

Ten young whooping cranes were released last week at the state’s White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, the first step in an effort to create a thriving flock of the birds in the marshes of south Louisiana.

The joint federal and state project, if successful, would help revive a bird species that now numbers only about 400 in the wild, according to information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The reintroduction site at White Lake is in the same general area where the last flock of Louisiana whooping cranes was documented in the 1940s by naturalist John Lynch.

“This is recreating history,” said Lynch’s daughter, Mary Lynch Courville.

She was on hand Tuesday to view the new arrivals, which are less than a year old but still dwarf other marsh birds.

At maturity, the cranes can grow up to 5 feet with a wingspan of up to 7 feet.

The 10 birds at White Lake were hatched in May and June, then raised in captivity at a federal wildlife research center in Maryland, said Carrie Salyers, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

The birds arrived at White Lake on Feb. 16 and have been living under the protection of a 70-foot diameter enclosed netted pen while they acclimate to their new habitat, she said.

Salyers said all feeding and other contact with the birds has been done by workers wearing white sheets over their head and body so that the cranes will not become accustomed to humans — an effort to keep them wild.

The young cranes are fed grapes and “crane chow,” a supplement similar to chicken feed, but the hope is that birds will soon begin foraging for frogs, insects and crawfish.

Salyers said one young crane gobbled a crawfish within a day of his release last week, a good sign of a healthy feeding instinct.

“It took him a couple of tries, but he got it down,” Salyers said.

She said that within the next two weeks, the birds will probably be released from the netted pen into a larger, one-and-a-half acre fenced area, from where the birds could begin to explore the surrounding marsh.

The larger pen has an electrified wire running around it to help keep out such predators as bobcats and coyotes, Salyers said, and recorded crane calls will be played at night to lure the young birds back to roost in the safety of the pen.

The whooping crane reintroduction project has been in the works for several years and the arrival of the birds came after a few years of studies to determine if water levels, food sources and habitat at White Lake was suitable for whooping cranes.

But many unknowns remain, such as how the birds will fare against predators or whether they will decide to fly away from White Lake and into harm’s way.

“I caution everyone that the months and years that lie ahead are very experimental,” said Robert Love, the administrator of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Coastal and Nongame Resources division.

A similar whooping crane reintroduction project in Florida has seen little success, with only about 22 birds remaining out of more than 250 released, said Tom Hess, a biologist with Wildlife and Fisheries.

Hess said many of the problems in Florida were related to drought and a lack of expansive wetland areas — two problems that he does not believe will be an issue at White Lake.

Most of the southwest Louisiana coast is undeveloped marsh, and Hess said the birds have been released into an area at the White Lake preserve where water levels can be controlled because it is surrounded by dikes.

Hess also said that great blue herons and other large marsh birds already thrive in the habitat at White Lake, which bodes well for the whooping cranes.

The crane project is not the first effort by state and federal wildlife officials to re-establish an endangered species in Louisiana.

The most notable example is the brown pelican.

Hess said the brown pelican had vanished from the state in the 1960s, largely due to the effects of pesticides, but the population was successfully revived using transplanted brown pelicans from Florida.

But Hess, who has been involved in the pelican’s recovery, said the whooping crane is a more sensitive bird and the reintroduction project at White Lake is “the most complex” he has worked on in three decades as a wildlife biologist.

Plans call for a new contingent of young cranes to arrive each year as biologists work toward the project goal of having a permanent, self-sustaining flock.

“That’s going to take many, many years to do,” Hess said.

By Richard Burgess
  Advocate Acadiana burea
  Published: February 23, 2011
(article can be found at 2TheAdvocate) Pin It Now!

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