Endangered whooping cranes find refuge in Vermilion

A new group of 11 young whooping cranes is scheduled to arrive in Vermilion Parish next month in an ongoing project to re-establish the endangered birds in the south Louisiana marshes where they once thrived.

Since the project began in February 2011, 40 of the rare birds have been released at the state’s 71,000-acre White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, and 23 are alive.

Only one crane survived out of the first group of 10 brought to White Lake, but subsequent releases have been more promising, with 12 of the 16 birds released in late 2011 still flying and 10 of the 14 birds released last year also thriving.

“We have seen much higher survival with our second two cohorts,” said Sara Zimorski, a biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries who is helping manage the project.

Bird deaths were expected.

Natural predators, like bobcats or alligators, will always be a threat in the wild, but three of the birds have been shot.

The state has been doing public outreach to educate residents about the presence of the endangered cranes and the penalties for intentionally killing one.

As for the success of the project, it’s still too early to tell, said Wade Harrell, the whooping crane recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The goal is to establish a self-sustaining population of the birds, he said, but it might take eight to 10 years for a mating pair of whooping cranes to reach full productivity.

“Particularly, with the whooping cranes you have to have a longer-term project to judge success,” Harrell said. “We are still very early in the project.”

Whooping cranes can begin to reach sexual maturity by age 3, Zimorski said. Last year, she said, one pair built a nest but unfortunately didn’t show much interest in pursuing the matter any further.

“Physically, they weren’t ready to do anything more than construct the nest,” Zimorski said.

The site of the reintroduction project at White Lake is where the cranes were last documented in Louisiana in the 1940s.

The cranes, which can stand up to 5 feet tall, should feel at home in the marsh there, Harrell said.

“The habitat, while it has changed from a natural to an agricultural-type landscape, still provides a lot of what we consider prime habitat,” he said.

Zimorski said the wide-open marsh landscape in south Louisiana figures into the large crane’s survival strategy, allowing them to both see and hear approaching predators.

“Standing water is what keeps them safe at night because nothing can be quiet moving through water,” she said.

The young cranes brought to White Lake were raised at a federal facility in Maryland.

The birds are first introduced in an enclosed, netted pen and then released after they acclimate to their new environment.

Zimorski said the birds, which are outfitted with tracking devices, have explored much of Louisiana and have even visited Texas, Mississippi and Arkansas.

“I think that’s one of the things we’ve been surprised with this project is how wide the birds have ranged,” Zimorski said.

She said all of the birds have returned at one time or another to White Lake.

“Normally, cranes will home in on the area where they first started flying,” she said. “They should have a feeling of that’s where they started from.”

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For more information on the whooping crane reintroduction project, visit www.wlf.la.gov.