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Crane chick born in wild dies there

Monitored under Florida's whooping crane program, the chick is killed by a predator.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2000


A few days ago, state biologists got close enough to touch the first whooping crane born in the wild in the United States in 60 years.

The 2-month-old chick was on the verge of learning to fly, and biologists wanted to attach a radio tracking device so they could follow it when it left its parents' nest on the Kissimmee Prairie.

But on Thursday, before it could take flight, the biggest success of Florida's 7-year-old whooping crane program fell victim to the natural order.

Researcher Tom Miller found the chick's body in 2 inches of water, chewed up by a predator -- most likely a bobcat on the prowl.

Although clearly disappointed by the death of the chick they had monitored since March, officials with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said they had known all along that something like this might happen.

Crane chicks in the wild have only a 50 percent chance of living long enough to fly. The chick's survival was complicated by Florida's drought, which recently forced the crane's parents to move their nest to a wetter area that might not have been as safe as the original nest.

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Steve Nesbitt said Friday that researchers had learned a lot from the chick's brief life.

"We have learned that whooping cranes will readily form bonds in Florida," he said. "Additionally they can lay fertile eggs, incubate and hatch a nest."

Last year a pair of adult whoopers laid the first eggs in the wild in the United States in 60 years, a milestone for Florida's experiment in reviving a species once on the verge of extinction.

Two weeks later, the eggs disappeared, eaten by a snake or alligator.

This spring three pairs of adults laid eggs, and around March 17, two of the eggs in one nest hatched, an even bigger milestone. But soon one of the chicks disappeared, having fallen prey to either a bobcat or a large raccoon.

The second chick thrived. It started out as just a speck of orange fluff, biologists said, and grew to be a smaller version of the white-feathered birds that once soared across the United States by the thousands, their bugling call audible up to 2 miles away.

The whooping crane is one of only two species of cranes living in North America. The other is the sandhill crane common to Florida's wetlands and cattle pastures.

As settlers moved across the country in the 1800s, draining the whoopers' native marshes, the birds' numbers dwindled. 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 eggs to raise some birds in captivity.

In 1993, Florida officials persuaded the federal government to send some captive-raised whooping cranes from a Maryland wildlife refuge to Florida to start a colony on the Kissimmee Prairie, already home to hundreds of sandhill cranes.

The plan: establish 25 nesting pairs of wild whoopers in Florida, while also maintaining at least 40 nesting pairs in the Canadian population. Federal officials hoped that would allow them to reclassify the endangered whoopers to merely threatened.

So far researchers have released 183 whooping cranes in Central Florida, but their mortality rate has been high as the captive-raised birds attempted to survive in the wild. In all, officials think about 65 whoopers remain.

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