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The Whooping Crane’s cloudy future

Whoopers back in Cajun Country

Louisiana’s 71,905-acre White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, in the southcentral part of the state, is the home of the fourth reintroduced population. (The site has a history with the species, having hosted a small remnant population into the 1940s.)

The first 10 birds were released at White Lake in 2011, and in subsequent years, up to 27 cranes have been released annually. The first wild-reared chick in Louisiana fledged in 2016, and last year, five chicks joined the population. By March 2019, the population stood at 75 birds. And while they’re not migratory, they do tend to wander. One bird, for example, spent last winter at an Alabama wildlife refuge, came back to Louisiana in spring, spent time in Arkansas, and then flew northwest to Oklahoma, where it spent the previous summer. Two others flew to Canada one spring, and one survived and made it back to Louisiana.

“Everything with Whooping Cranes is slow and requires a lot of patience, and that’s frustrating and hard at times,” says Sara Zimorski, a wildlife biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “In the big picture, we’re still relatively early. Our oldest birds were just 8 years old this spring, and Whooping Cranes are a long-lived species. So, you have to be in it for the long haul.”

A young Whooping Crane begins to hatch from its egg on a nest in Louisiana in May 2019. None of the six chicks that hatched in the Louisiana flock this year survived. Photo courtesy Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

Most of Louisiana’s birds have been raised by costumed handlers — biologists and others who are dressed head to toe in white to resemble adult Whoopers. Lately, Zimorski says, some young birds are being parent-reared: That is, they’re raised by captive adult cranes. “The goal is to have those birds, wherever they come from, to start breeding on their own, and then you get that second generation and then down the road a third generation,” she says.

A significant problem for all crane populations has been shootings. At least 40 Whoopers have been lost to gunshots in 13 states and provinces since 1967, most in the last 10 years. According to the International Crane Foundation, more than 70 percent of cases were not related to hunting. To combat the problem, the group has worked to raise awareness of Whoopers in Alabama, Texas, and Indiana. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has done similar work in its state.

“The winter of 2017-18 was the first winter in 10 years that we did not have a Whooping Crane shooting along the eastern flyway,” ICF reports. “This is important to note since winter is the most common season for shootings to take place. Our outreach work has helped educate people in both the eastern flyway and in Texas, and we are creating communities that care about Whooping Cranes. This is wonderful news to report, but our work is far from over.”

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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