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updated: 9/15/2012 5:54 PM

More whooping cranes to join Louisiana flock

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  • Four of the first 10 whooping cranes brought to southwest Louisiana under a federal-state project stand in a rice field.

      Four of the first 10 whooping cranes brought to southwest Louisiana under a federal-state project stand in a rice field.
    Associated Press/June 6, 2011

 
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- More than a dozen young whooping cranes are expected to arrive this fall in southwest Louisiana, doubling the number in a flock being reintroduced near the area where the state's last wild flock lived in the 1930s, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says.

Twenty-six whoopers have been brought to Louisiana, but predators and disease killed nearly half of them. Whooping cranes are some of the world's largest and rarest birds.

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State wildlife biologist Carrie Salyers said the next 14 are tentatively scheduled to arrive Nov. 28.

The youngsters hatched in the spring and were raised in captivity.

They're not expected to mix with the older birds -- only one bird from a group brought in back in February 2010 has socialized with those brought in December 2011, and that appeared to be a matter of timing. The male identified as No. 4-10 had left the area. He returned on New Year's Eve, when the second group of 16 was still being fed daily inside a 1.5-acre fence.

"At first he was not well received. Especially when they realized he was there for the ladies and the crane chow," Salyers said.

She said the younger birds "were going, `No, we can't stand having you around. We're going to chase you around nonstop."' The returning male had to "grab a gulp of food" while running past it, she said.

After a while, though, two females vied for his attention and the males began to imitate him.

A predator ended any chance that 4-10 would hook up with one of the females. A few of his bones were found at White Lake over Mother's Day weekend, but there was too little left to tell what had eaten him, Salyers said.

Deaths are expected, since the birds must learn to live in the wild. But teenage hunters killed two.

The department is trying to spread the word about the need to protect Louisiana's whooping cranes with billboards, radio announcements and workshops to teaching middle- and high-school science teachers and environmental educators about them.

The workshops -- offering a $75 stipend, lesson plans on topics such as endangered species, ecosystems and bird reproduction, and a GPS unit to use for teaching -- began in August. The next workshops are planned Nov. 12 in Shreveport and Feb. 22 during the Louisiana Educators Environmental Symposium in Baton Rouge.

Whooping cranes are the rarest and tallest birds in North America, known for their elaborate dance and unique call, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They have white feathers, black wing tips and a red and black mask.

A big male can be 5 feet tall, with an 8-foot wingspan. Only 599 are known to exist, up from a low of 16 in 1941. The Louisiana birds are among 437 in four wild flocks. One flock migrates between Saskatchewan, Canada, and the Texas Gulf Coast and another between Wisconsin and Florida. Nineteen cranes live year-round in Florida, where wildlife workers had hoped to establish a flock but are no longer bringing in youngsters.

Louisiana's whooping cranes are envisioned as a non-migrating flock. That doesn't mean the birds stay put -- they're long-distance flyers. They frequent Vermilion, Jefferson Davis, Evangeline and Acadia parishes and have been seen in Cameron, Calcasieu, Allen, Rapides, Avoyelles, St. Martin, Iberia and West Feliciana. Some sightings have been more than 100 miles from White Lake.

The first 10 arrived in February 2011 under a project coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Only two survived: a male and female that live separately in Jefferson Davis Parish.

The female left almost as soon as the net was removed from the pen in which the cranes were kept for their first month at the refuge, said Tandi Perkins, an LSU AgCenter wildlife biologist who, with scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, is studying the birds' behavior.

"She took off and she took north and pretty much never looked back," Perkins said. "The interesting part of her strategy is she hung out with water birds" -- at first egrets, which like the whoopers are white, but later with blue herons as well. She said the bird appeared extremely wary, a behavior that should help her survival.

Perkins said the 12 survivors from December's cohort include a flock of seven that goes back and forth between Avoyelles and Rapides parishes, two singles and a group of three. One of the single cranes had been part of a threesome, but the other two were killed, apparently by predators.

The remaining trio lives fairly near the two birds released in 2010 but doesn't mix with them, Perkins said. "They do use the same fields, but on different days."

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