‘Alive’ to showcase La. cranes

Viewers will get a seldom-seen, up-close look at whooping cranes in Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s new six-part series, “Alive! In America’s Delta.”

The series’ first episode airs at 7 p.m. Monday on WLPB, Channel 27.1 (cable Channel 12) in Baton Rouge and at 8 p.m. Friday on WLAE (Channel 32) in New Orleans.

By 1954, Louisiana had lost its entire population of whooping cranes. This majestic North American bird had been over-hunted and much of its coastal habitat was converted to farmland, pushing the population to the brink of extinction and leaving only 16 birds remaining in the world.

To assist in the survival of the species, U.S. and Canadian biologists started by working to re-establish the bird, and in the process have learned even more about the whooping crane. Through this intensive, international effort, there are now more than 400 in the wild, and while there is new hope for the future of the species, their ultimate survival is not guaranteed.

This documentary follows the newest initiative underway in southwest Louisiana to reintroduce whooping cranes into their ancestral territory. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is leading this effort. Each year, whooping cranes born in captivity are raised by costumed caretakers at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, run by the U.S. Geological Survey, with the intent of reintroducing them into the wild.

By increasing the numbers of whooping cranes, the bird could eventually be removed from the list of critically endangered species. The addition of a separate non-migratory flock also will serve to protect the species from the danger of disease or a catastrophic event like a hurricane or oil spill.

South Louisiana has retained an extensive crane habitat, with coastal marshlands providing an abundance of food. The reintroduced whooping cranes also frequent rice and crawfish farms, which are a rich source of foraging material. But even with an ideal habitat, the young birds lack the guidance and protection of whooping crane parents, which makes them even more vulnerable as they are introduced to the wild with predators and man-made dangers.

In the show, producer Donna LaFleur and photographer Rex Q. Fortenberry followed alongside the LDWF staff members as they work with the cranes. Fortenberry even dons the required crane costume to disguise himself and his camera to capture the arrival of the young birds to the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area and throughout their release into the Louisiana marshlands south of Gueydan.

Additionally, LDWF biologists wore cameras strapped to their chests while interacting with the birds, giving viewers an intimate look at the young cranes and how they relate to their costumed caretakers and revealing how staff members approach issues such as medicating the birds and achieving dominance over cranes that might challenge their authority.

“The main purpose of the costume is to disguise the fact that we’re people underneath the costume. We think that the best chances to succeed in the wild is to not be comfortable, not be used to being around people. They don’t see us; we don’t speak around the birds,” LDWF biologist Sara Zimorski said.

Future episodes in the “Alive! In America’s Delta” series explore Louisiana black bears, wildlife enforcement and endangered species on land and in the water.

The series was produced with support and assistance of the LDWF.