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Loss of cranes a major blow to recovery efforts

By Times editorial
Published February 7, 2007


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Compared to the devastating losses of life, property and peace of mind suffered by our neighbors to the north and east, the deaths of 17 whooping cranes in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge may seem insignificant.

But the loss of these rare birds is a major setback to an innovative program aimed at reviving a dying species. It also shows that nature's fury spares nothing in its path.

The birds had arrived in January after making an amazing migration from Wisconsin to Florida. Snowbirds who make similar trips by car know how demanding a journey it can be; just imagine the determination and endurance it takes for a gangly bird to flap its wings for 1,200 miles, all the while following an ultralight aircraft piloted by a human in a bird costume.

But groups of these intrepid birds have been making this arduous trip for six years as part of a recovery program led by a collection of wildlife groups known as the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. Through efforts like this, the world's largest bird, standing a majestic 5 feet tall, is being saved from extinction.

But even these marvels of nature are no match for the ferocity of a string of tornadoes.

As the elements of last week's storms gathered in the Gulf of Mexico Thursday night, the winds howled and the waters rose. The birds, tucked away in their pens in a remote location in the wildlife refuge that straddles the line between Citrus and Hernando counties, were in the storms' path.

In past years, the pens had been open on top so the birds could come and go. When storms brewed, the cranes could fly out and seek shelter. But this time the pens were topped by nets to keep older whooping cranes that live in a remote area of Hernando County from invading and possibly harming the younger birds.

The netting, as well as the location in a watery site, were steps taken to protect the cranes from predators. Ironically, they wound up contributing to their demise.

As the wind-whipped storm surge rolled in, the water and mud inside the pens rose, trapping the birds. The speed of the storm, plus the remote location of the pens, prevented potential rescuers from getting to the cranes. In the end, 17 of the cranes perished.

The lone survivor was a renegade crane that somehow managed to escape. The same bird, No. 615, had caused fits for the humans during the migration by being headstrong and flying away from the flock before rejoining its buddies. Turns out, this independent streak may have saved its life.

The survival of this single whooping crane does little to ease the pain of the scores of scientists and volunteers who have labored so hard over the past 6 years to restore the numbers of these unique creatures.

But just as the people of Central Florida are slowly piecing their lives back together, the story of No. 615 demonstrates that even in the face of devastation and hopelessness, the indomitable spirit to survive carries on in all species.

[Last modified February 6, 2007, 21:53:01]


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