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Eggs hatch into history

If two whooping cranes can survive their first, perilous two weeks, they will offer hope to an embattled species.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2000


photo
[Times file photo]
A pair of whooping cranes stands alert for danger. Another pair has produced the first eggs to hatch in the wild east of the Mississippi in 100 years.

The first whooping crane to be born in the wild in the United States in 60 years hatched somewhere near the Kissimmee Prairie of Central Florida last week.

It was followed about three days later by another one, to the delight and amazement of biologists who have been monitoring the nest around the clock.

The pair are the first whooper chicks to be born in the wild east of the Mississippi since the turn of the century.

Marty Folk, one of the state biologists who for the past month had been watching the nest from about 200 yards away, got a glimpse of the two chicks Sunday. He saw "a little speck of orange moving around at the foot of the parents . . . It was kind of a monumental thing," he said Wednesday.

"We are very, very, very excited about this," said Joy Hill, a spokeswoman for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "This is the culmination of a dream for many people."

The excitement is tempered by the fact the chicks are likely to be gobbled up by a predator in the next two weeks -- carried off by a hawk or gobbled up by a snake. In studying the whoopers' cousin, the sandhill crane, biologists have learned that only one chick out of 10 survives longer than two weeks.

Last year marked the first time a pair of the endangered birds laid eggs in the wild. Whooper nests are constructed to be floating platforms anchored to the marsh vegetation. That makes them vulnerable to predators.

Before last year's eggs could hatch, they disappeared, apparently eaten by a snake or an alligator.

But it wasn't snakes and alligators that put the whooping crane on the endangered species list.

Once thousands of the majestic birds soared across the United States, their bugling call audible up to 2 miles away. But as settlers drained marshes and plowed prairies, the birds' numbers dwindled rapidly.

By 1938, only two small flocks remained. One nested in Canada and wintered in Texas. The other lived year-round in Louisiana. A storm wiped out all but six of the Louisiana birds, and none laid eggs again. The last survivor of that flock died in 1950.

Researchers desperate to save the birds from extinction found the Canadian birds' nesting grounds and, beginning in the late 1960s, started taking some of those eggs to resurrect the species by raising birds in captivity.

State officials have been talking about trying to establish a year-round whooper population in Florida for nearly 20 years. In 1993, they persuaded the federal government to send some captive-raised whooping cranes from a wildlife refuge in Maryland down to Florida to start a colony on the Kissimmee Prairie, selected because it is home to hundreds of sandhill cranes. Others have been shipped down from the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin.

The new parents are one of each -- the male came from Maryland, the female from Wisconsin. Each is nearly 5 years old. Cranes mate for life. This pair has never laid eggs before.

Despite their inexperience, they picked a textbook place to build their nest, at the edge of a marsh, Folk said. State officials have declined to be more specific about the location to protect the birds from human intrusion.

Folk and other biologists started keeping an eye on the pair about a month ago, when they began "building on a nest platform like crazy," Folk said.

From then on, the pair stuck close the nest, taking turns sitting on the eggs to incubate them. The 30-day incubation period seemed more like 500 days to the biologists watching the pair, Folk said.

"A watched egg won't hatch," he joked.

Last Thursday, Folk noticed the parents' behavior change. They were "spending a lot of time hanging around the nest, looking down a lot" -- apparently foraging for insects and other food to bring back to their young.

"Can you imagine the surprise of those parent whoopers?" Hill asked.

Folk said biologists hope to get photos and video of the nest, but no one will get close to the chicks until they are 70 days old. Then biologists will want to band them.

Even if the chicks don't survive that long, Folk said, the fact that they were born at all is shows that the whooper program is headed in the right direction.

"The birds showed us they know how to do what they need to do," he said.


-- Times staff writer Josh Zimmer contributed to this report.

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