Rare whooping crane appears near Lake Okeechobee

A South Florida Water Management District worker spotted this rare 10-year-old female whooping crane west of Lake Okeechobee in recent weeks. The bird is one of about a dozen surviving a failed attempt to establish a non-migrating flock in Florida.
A South Florida Water Management District worker spotted this rare 10-year-old female whooping crane west of Lake Okeechobee in recent weeks. The bird is one of about a dozen surviving a failed attempt to establish a non-migrating flock in Florida.
South Florida Water Management District


Whooping crane No. 1441, one of the last surviving cranes in a failed effort to re-establish a Florida flock of the nearly extinct birds, made a rare appearance this spring.

A surveyor counting birds for the South Florida Water Management District spotted the lone female — one of possibly three surviving chicks born in the wild as part of an attempt to reestablish a non-migrating flock in Florida — in Glades County on the west shore of Lake Okeechobee, said Tim Dellinger, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

The bird, now 10 and still wearing green bands and a radio-tracking monitor that has long since stopped working, was one of 37 chicks hatched from 289 captive-bred cranes released between 1999 and 2012, he said. Of those, only 11 lived long enough to fly and possibly three, including No. 1441, survive. The total flock is down to less than a dozen.

“It’s too bad,” Dellinger said. “I’ve seen (No. 1441) in years past completely on its own, out there foraging around.”

The number of gangly whoopers, North America’s tallest bird at up to five feet, dropped to just 16 in the 1940s, bringing it to the brink of extinction. When the Endangered Species Act was created in 1973, and only one flock of 50 migrating birds between Canada and Texas remained, whooping cranes were one of the original species listed. The act enabled protection of its breeding ground and that allowed the flock to rebound.

Hopeful that they could expand whooping crane numbers, biologists began experimenting with ways to mimic what nature was struggling to do. They tried putting whooping crane eggs in the nests of sandhill cranes in Texas, hoping they’d foster them. Instead, the birds tried to mate.

In 1993, a plan was hatched to reintroduce Florida’s non-migrating population in the Kissimmee Prairie area. Chicks were raised by costumed workers (to keep the birds from bonding with humans) in a Baltimore nursery, then shipped to Florida. Altogether, 289 were released. But from 1999 to 2012, Dellinger said biologists found only 90 nests.

The highly social animals are sensitive to their surroundings.

“Everything means something to them,” he said. “If a crane stretches out its neck, that indicates it wants to fly off. Or if one of the birds we’ve caught before comes across a trap, it recognizes it and will start picking up objects and throwing them to warn the other birds,” he said.

Males, which take the lead in flight, kept hitting power lines.

“We’ve rarely had males live past 10 years,” he said.

When Dellinger started on the project in 2008, he said there were between 40 and 45 birds alive. But so many were getting eaten by raccoons, bobcats and other predators as their wetland habitats shrank — water surrounding nests lets them hear predators approach — that the state decided that year to stop releasing cranes and instead monitor the remaining birds in a kind of prolonged death watch. There were only 31 birds left when the state announced the decision in November 2008.

Meanwhile, a program that has come to represent one of the more innovative approaches at reintroduction has thrived. The now widely recognized Operation Migration started training young cranes to migrate from Wisconsin to central Florida in 2000, using costumed workers flying ultralight planes. A total of 104 birds have been trained and released, said spokeswoman Heather Ray. This year’s graduating class of eight left Florida to make their solo return flight to Wisconsin on March 31. Four wearing satellite trackers show two had made it to Kentucky and two to Illinois by Thursday night.

As for Florida’s flock, Dellinger said he still keeps a file and leaves a link on the state’s website — http://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/birds/whooping-crane/contact/ — hoping anyone who spots one will report the sighting. He’s so grateful that he responds to every post with a personal call.

“It’s good to know so if anything in the future comes up,” he said, “you know where the birds are and you can do something.”

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