First Time Since 1939 – Whooping Crane Hatches in Wild in Louisiana
Friends of the Wild Whoopers would like to congratulate Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries on this historical hatch. Everyone’s dedication and hard work has been rewarded with a new addition to the Louisiana flock of Whooping Cranes. With this exciting news come hope for the Whooping Crane.
April 12, 2016 – A major milestone was reached this week in the reintroduction of the whooping crane in Louisiana when the first hatching of a chick in the state in more than 75 years occurred in Jefferson Davis Parish.
The hatching, the first seen in Louisiana’s wild since 1939, represents another step forward in the program established in February of 2011 when the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reintroduced whooping cranes back into the state at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish.
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The young pair of adult cranes, nesting in a crawfish pond on the northern end of the Cajun prairie, has been under observation by project biologists since eggs were spotted in their nest in March. The 30-day incubation period has passed for what would have been the first whooping crane chicks hatched on the Louisiana landscape in over 75 years. Whooping cranes are not expected to become successful nesters until they reach four to six years of age, and only a few of Louisiana’s whooping cranes will soon be four years old. LDWF has collected the eggs and has determined they were not fertile.
Sara Zimorski, whooping crane project biologist told FOTWW that, “Although we were hoping for viable eggs and chicks we’re still excited and proud of our birds for incubating these eggs full term and of course we have high hopes for them next spring!”
“Although this nest did not produce chicks, it is still a very positive and progressive step for the reintroduction project for many reasons,” said Robert Love, LDWF Coastal and Non-game Resources Division administrator. “This seems to be a strongly bonded pair, which produced two normal eggs, early in the spring and incubated them full term.”
LDWF biologists collected vital data on the cranes’ nest building schedule, nest attentiveness and their reactions to nearby farming activity. Throughout the process, biologists kept the farmer and landowner informed about the cranes’ activity.
The state’s whooping crane reintroduction project began with the release of an initial cohort of juvenile cranes in 2011 at White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish. There are three bonded pairs among the 30 surviving birds that are reaching maturity.
“From the beginning of this reintroduction, the department realized how vulnerable this species is to human harm, and knew one of the challenges would be to elevate the public’s respect for this wildlife species, through a stepwise process of awareness, appreciation and protection,” said Love. “That education and outreach challenge is being addressed through corporate sponsorship.”
The largest corporate supporter for the project is Chevron.
“Chevron believes that environmental stewardship is vital to sustainable economic progress and human development not only here in south Louisiana but throughout the world,” said Chevron Public Affairs General Manager Sakari Morrison. “The success of the whooping crane reintroduction program is encouraging for our area’s biodiversity goals but it’s also encouraging because it shows what can be accomplished through public-private partnerships. We look forward to continuing our support of the whooping cranes with LDWF.”
Team partners who assisted in bringing juvenile cranes to Louisiana annually since 2011 include the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, the International Crane Foundation, the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There are a number of success stories on species recovery associated with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) and in February 2011 they added one more. The department initiated a whooping crane re-population project that has been as challenging as any previous effort. Finally the project to reintroduce a whooping crane flock is experiencing some hoped for success.
A pair of the reintroduced whooping cranes has produced two eggs in the wilds of Louisiana for the first time in 70 years, the state LDWF announced on April 15. LDWF Secretary Robert Barham told the audience at the 13th North American Crane Workshop in Lafayette about the important occurrence in the reintroduction of the endangered birds to the wild.
Once widespread, the whooping crane population had plummeted to a historic low of just 15 known individuals in 1940-41. The decline was mostly due to hunting and the conversion of wetland habitat into agricultural fields. “This is the first time that a whooping crane pair has produced eggs in the wild in over 70 years on the Louisiana landscape,” Barham said.
The LDWF has been releasing whooping cranes into the wild in the White Lake area since 2011 in an experimental project. Since then 50 of the whoopers have been released, and 30 have survived. Twenty of the birds have died due to predation or natural health problems while 5 have been killed or wounded in shooting incidents.
For Louisianans, the sight of a whooping crane in the wild has been only a distant memory. The last record of the species in Louisiana dates back to 1950, when the last surviving whooping crane was removed from Vermilion Parish property that is now part of LDWF’s White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. Now there is much hope for a restored flock.
Friends of the Wild Whoopers(FOTWW) believes that Louisiana may have the most favorable opportunity to reestablish a new population of whooping cranes. Why? Whooping cranes need wetlands. Wetlands make up most of the only remaining wild whooping crane’s nesting habitat in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada and most of their winter habitat at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
Coastal Louisiana embraces one of the most wetland-rich regions of the world, with 2.5 million acres of marshes (fresh, brackish, and saline) and 637,400 acres of forested wetlands. It contains about 40 percent of the coastal marshes in the coterminous United States. So, Louisiana has the necessary habitat which is a most important need for whoopers. FOTWW hopes for the best in Louisiana.
Historically, both resident and migratory populations of whooping cranes were present in Louisiana through the early 1940s. The massive birds inhabited the marshes and ridges of the state’s southwest Chenier Coastal Plain, as well as the uplands of prairie terrace habitat to the north. According to Dr. Gay Gomez, professor of geography at McNeese State University and Louisiana whooping crane historian, “Records from the 1890s indicated ‘large numbers’ of both whooping cranes and sandhill cranes on wet prairies year round.”
The Louisiana whoopers are not the only cranes in the wild. A self-sustaining wild population of whooping cranes migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Like those in an eastern migratory population, the Aransas group remains vulnerable to extinction from continued loss of habitat and catastrophes, either natural or man-made.
Multiple efforts are underway to reduce these risks and bring this magnificent bird further along its path to recovery. This includes increasing populations in the wild, ongoing efforts to establish a migratory population in the eastern United States and establishing a resident (non-migratory) population in Louisiana. The White Lake marshes and vast surrounding coastal marshes of southwest Louisiana was a positive factor in the decision making process that led to the experimental population approval.
The original wild Louisiana whooping crane population did not withstand the pressure of human encroachment, conversion of nesting habitat to agricultural acreage, hunting, and specimen collection, which also occurred across North America. Dr. Gomez’s research indicates “In May of 1939, biologist John Lynch reported 13 whooping cranes north of White Lake and that in August 1940, flood waters associated with a hurricane scattered the resident White Lake population of cranes and only six of the 13 cranes returned. By 1947, only one crane remained at White lake and in March of 1950, the last crane in Louisiana was captured and relocated to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas.”
The goal of the LDWF’s reintroduction project is to establish a self-sustaining whooping crane population on and around White Lake, which contains over 70,000 acres of freshwater marsh. A self-sustaining population is defined as a flock of 130 individuals with 30 nesting pairs, surviving for a 10-year period without any additional restocking.
Whooping cranes do not generally nest until 3-5 years of age, so the nesting success of the Louisiana flock is now entering that time period. The long-term goal of this reintroduction is to move whooping cranes from an endangered species status to threatened status.