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Nature's odds claim whooper

Despite the loss of one of two chicks, officials think the state's project to increase the whooping crane population will succeed.

Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000

One of the two whooping crane hatchlings that raised hopes for a flock of the endangered birds has disappeared from the nest near Lake Okeechobee and likely was killed by a predator.

"Though we can't be sure, all signs point either to a bobcat or large raccoon," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Henry Cabbage said Thursday.

"We knew from the beginning the odds were against us, given that the first 14 days of life for the whoopers is often the most perilous, but you always hope for the best," he said.

The two hatchlings, the first native offspring born to transplanted cranes in Florida, were born between March 16 and 18 in a nesting area on the Kissimmee Prairie, just north of Lake Okeechobee.

The whooping crane is one of only two species of cranes living in North America; the other is the Sand Hill crane common in local yards and wetlands. Widespread hunting and development brought the whooping crane to the brink of extinction.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the International Research Center, began a reintroduction project in 1993.

Since then, researchers have released 183 whooping cranes into the wild, but their mortality rate has been high.

In all, officials think just 66 whoopers are still alive in Florida, including the surviving chick. Wildlife officials hope to downgrade the species to "threatened" status by establishing 25 nesting pairs of wild whooping cranes in Florida, while also maintaining at least 40 nesting pairs in the only remaining wild population that nests in Manitoba, Canada.

The partners in the Florida project plan to continue releasing cranes until the state's population stabilizes at 100 to 125 birds.

Cabbage remained steadfast Thursday in his belief that the baby whoopers are the first solid indication the project will succeed.

In addition to the nest containing the first hatchlings, there are now 14 pairs of nesting whooping cranes under observation.

"And we've already got an egg in one of those," Cabbage said. "Unfortunately, the mother is very young and not attending the nest very well. But as was the case with the first chicks, we'll just have to wait and see what happens."

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