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Storms obliterate flock of rare crane fledglings

The birds, nearly a fourth of the eastern migratory whooping crane population, died inside a pen topped with netting at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Crystal River.

Published February 3, 2007


CRYSTAL RIVER - One morning the week before Christmas, 18 young whooping cranes soared above a fog-shrouded airport in Marion County. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the birds complete their arduous migration from Wisconsin to Florida.

Now triumph has turned to catastrophe: All 18 cranes died in the storms that swept through Central Florida early Friday.

The birds, nearly a fourth of the eastern migratory whooping crane population, died inside a pen topped with netting at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Crystal River.

The cause of death wasn't known Saturday afternoon. Penned in and unable to escape, the cranes may have drowned in surging gulf waters or been electrocuted by lightning.

"It's devastating, just devastating. I could not have thought of any scenario in which we would lose all of the birds," said Joe Duff, a founding member of Operation Migration.

The group has spent years helping develop a migratory flock of whoopers, using ultralight aircraft to teach young birds to fly between Wisconsin and Florida. The "Class of 2006" were the most genetically diverse group to date, a critical factor in making the wild flock viable.

The deaths were tinged with irony:

- The birds were kept in an isolated waterfront area to prevent human contact and acclimate them to their natural habitat. The netting was another safety measure. That left no escape and no one to know they were in trouble.

- This group was the only one in six years that made it to Florida without losing a single crane.

- Word of the loss reached officials Friday afternoon in Lafayette, La., where they gathered for a biannual meeting of the agencies involved in whooping crane conservation and recovery. They were celebrating the success of the program.

"The news just took us to our knees," said Liz Condie, chief executive officer of Operation Migration.

- - -

The whooping crane is the tallest North American bird, with a large male measuring about 5 feet. It is so distinct and photogenic that Operation Migration calls it "the most famous endangered bird" on the continent.

In the 1940s, the species was at the brink of extinction. Only 15 cranes were alive.

Human intervention and support has been critical. The Whooping Crane Recovery Team, a group of U.S. and Canadian experts, oversees protection and preservation efforts. The team has nurtured a nonmigratory flock.

In 1999, a consortium of government and nonprofit groups called the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership set about establishing a migratory flock.

- - -

The migration project starts each year when whooping crane chicks are hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Ultralight aircraft sounds are played for the eggs so that the birds bond with the craft.

Human contact comes only in the form of keepers who wear whooping crane costumes. The birds never hear a human voice.

Just before the birds are ready to fly for the first time, they are crated and transferred to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin for flight training with the ultralight.

The aircraft leads the whoopers to Florida, where people marvel at the majestic conclusion to the 1,200-mile journey.

Each year after following the craft to Central Florida, the birds return to Wisconsin on their own. This year's chicks would likely have begun that trip home in the coming weeks.

- - -

Unlike past years, these cranes were unable to fly out as the storm approached. The top netting protected them from older birds from previous migrations that had been hanging around the pen.

Those older birds steal the chicks' food and water and can become aggressive and drive the young birds off or even hurt them.

Condie said members of the crane partnership were mourning and that supportive messages have been flooding in.

The eastern migratory flock has 63 cranes, the nonmigratory flock near Kissimmee has 54 and the naturally migrating flock that travels from Canada to Texas each year has 230.

Jim Bierly, president of the Citrus County chapter of the Audubon Society, felt bad for the workers and volunteers. "Those people are so dedicated. It's their whole life," he said. "It's like losing their children."

[Last modified February 3, 2007, 22:00:26]

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