Apr 22, 2014 17:24 Endangered whooping cranes nesting here again Endangered whooping cranes nesting here again Photos provided by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries -- North American Crane (whooping crane) eggs. First eggs in revival project exciting wildlife biologists Richard burgess| email@example.com April 22, 2014 Comments LAFAYETTE — Two eggs sitting on a nest of marsh grass and sticks in a crawfish pond offer a bit of hope in a project to bring back the endangered whooping crane to south Louisiana. It’s been 75 years since a whooping crane egg was documented in the state, and the birds had disappeared from the Louisiana landscape by 1950, the victim of habitat loss and hunting. “Our fingers are crossed that next week we might have chicks hatching there,” said Sara Zimorski, a biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. She is helping oversee a project to reintroduce to Louisiana one of the rarest and largest birds in the world, growing up to 5 feet tall with a 7-foot wingspan. The announcement of the new eggs was made Tuesday in Lafayette at the North American Crane Workshop meeting in Lafayette, a gathering of scientists and conservationists with an interest in crane issues. Zimorski said the cranes laid the eggs in late March and — based on the average 30-day incubation period — the chicks could hatch by next week. The eggs are the first since wildlife officials released an initial group of young whooping cranes in south Louisiana in 2011, and Zimorski said researchers are not certain if the eggs are viable. “We are hopeful, but we don’t know,” Zimorski said. Still, she said, it is encouraging so early in the project to have a pair of birds mate, build a nest and give such careful attention to protecting its clutch of eggs. She said the birds have left the nest only briefly, generally when the mother and father are switching off while taking turns sitting on the eggs. Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham said the parents were even observed huddled down on the nest during a recent hail storm to protect the eggs. Wildlife researchers have released 50 whooping cranes since 2011 at the state’s White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish, the same general area where the last known flock of whooping cranes in Louisiana roosted decades ago. The birds brought to Louisiana were reared at a federal wildlife facility in Maryland. They were introduced first into a net-covered pen for a few weeks before being released into a larger fenced area to offer protection from predators while the birds acclimated to their new environment. So far, 30 of the birds have survived. Predators took most of the others, but five fell victim to gunshots, according to Wildlife and Fisheries. “We’ve had some pinheads who either don’t know better or have bad intentions,” Barham said. The surviving birds, which have tracking devices attached to their legs, have ventured far from White Lake, spreading out across southwest Louisiana and even occasionally visiting neighboring states. A century ago, whooping cranes thrived in the expansive marshes and prairies of coastal Louisiana, but the birds now seem just at home in rice fields and crawfish ponds, Zimorski said. “The agricultural fields are basically working wetlands, and they seem to be good habitat for the whooping cranes,” she said. Wildlife officials have not released the specific location of the new whooping crane eggs, and Zimorski said even researchers working with the cranes have been careful to keep their distance. “We don’t want to cause any undue disturbance,” she said. The discovery of the eggs this year came after a pair of cranes built a nest last year, the first whooping crane nest outside of captivity since the demise of whooping cranes in the state. This year’s eggs are considered a natural progression as the Louisiana cranes mature, Zimorski said, and whether the eggs hatch or not, their arrival is a positive sign. “These are all just such great steps forward,” she said. Zimorski said another group of young cranes is expected to arrive this year at White Lake. For information on the whooping crane reintroduction project, visit www.wlf.louisiana.gov/wildlife/whooping-cranes.