As Louisiana’s Whooping Crane Population Matures, the Birds Nest More Frequently

story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information

As Sara Zimorski made her rounds checking on whooping cranes in Jefferson Davis Parish one March morning earlier this year, she was stopped a couple of times by rice and crawfish farmers. The question was the same both times.

“How are the whooping crane families doing?’’ they asked. “Any hatchlings yet?’’

The encounters with the farmers and landowners are a positive sign as Louisiana attempts to bring back an endangered species that was once abundant in the coastal prairie land in the southwest portion of the state. Some of these landowners have become as committed to restoring whooping cranes as anyone.

Under the direction of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the state is in the seventh year of a project to restore the majestic bird, which can reach up to 5 feet in height and have a 7-8 foot wingspan. A total of 102 birds have been released in Louisiana since the project began in 2011 with 57 currently alive.

Whooping cranes in Louisiana are designated as a non-essential, experimental population (NEP) under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. This designation and its implementing regulation were developed to be more compatible with routine human activities, such as rice and crawfish farming, in the reintroduction area. Whooping cranes are protected under the federal Endangered Species and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts and by Louisiana state law.

The initial cohort of birds received in 2011 marked the first presence of whooping cranes in the wild in Louisiana since 1950.

LDWF has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Service, the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the International Crane Foundation to return the species to the state. Project funding comes from LDWF Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge funds, State Wildlife Grants Program and private/corporate donations, which are facilitated by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation. Chevron has been a major corporate donor in the program.

Another important partnership that has formed over the last few years has been with the rice and crawfish farmers in southwest Louisiana, where the birds primarily are based. Maybe partnership isn’t the right word. Many of these farmers now see the whooping cranes that nest and forage on their property as part of their family.

That is no surprise. Family is important to these farmers. And when you’re family, you’re well taken care of.

“I think when the farmers saw that whooping cranes weren’t having a negative impact on their property, they became interested and engaged in what was happening with our project,’’ said Zimorski, an LDWF biologist who leads the Louisiana whooping crane project. “When they see the same birds, they begin to feel some ownership. Some of these landowners and farmers have seen whooping crane nests and have seen the raising of a whooping crane chick at a closer range than anybody else. They’re part of something that few people in the world have witnessed.’’

Historic Hatch

Louisiana’s whooping crane project requires patience. The birds can live 20-30 years in the wild. Because they don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 3-5 years old, reproduction has been slow in the Louisiana project. They form life-long relationships though they will re-pair after the death of a mate.

In April of 2016, a pair hatched two chicks in Jefferson Davis Parish. It was the first time a wild hatching occurred in the state since 1939. Only one of the two chicks survived, as was expected, but Zimorski and the LDWF whooping crane team said it was a significant step for the project and perhaps a bit ahead of schedule.

Zimorski was also pleasantly surprised that the bird, a female, survived and is doing well on its own in southwest Louisiana, not too far from where the parents re-nested this spring.

“The fact that the birds are producing eggs and incubating them well is a positive,’’ Zimorski said. “They’re doing that right on time. We have to be patient. One thing we’re looking at is to see is if they’re going to need a little more practice and experience to get to that next step, or if they will need a little more assistance hatching and raising more chicks.

“I think we’re close to being on target. The sex and age structure of the population is a bit skewed with younger males. So until some of those younger males get to be 3 and 4 years old and available to pair with some of our older females we’re going to plateau in the number of potential breeding pairs.’’

Perfect Whooping Crane Habitat

According to records, there were large numbers of whooping cranes on the coastal prairies of Louisiana in the 1890s. Those numbers dwindled in the early part of the 20th century and by 1947, only one remained in the wild. That bird was relocated to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas in 1950.

The distinctive sound of the whooping crane in Louisiana’s coastal prairie went silent for about 60 years.

Bob Love was sure the whooping crane could make a comeback in Louisiana and could flourish. Love, a former LDWF Administrator of Coastal and Nongame Resources who retired in March of 2016, pushed through the red tape and skepticism until he and LDWF finally were able to begin the program in February of 2011.

A total of 26 whooping cranes were brought in to the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish in southwest Louisiana in 2011 from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. A new cohort has been brought to Louisiana every year since.

Initially it was believed the birds would stay close to White Lake because it was considered to be ideal habitat in a coastal marsh.

However, many went north to the rice and crawfish fields in parishes such as Jefferson Davis. Some even ventured into Texas.

“I don’t think we thought they would spend as much time, let alone be nesting and raising chicks, in agricultural settings,’’ Zimorski said. “That was surprising.’’

Love said southwest Louisiana’s coastal prairie habitat coupled with the abundance of flooded crawfish and rice fields does appear to be good breeding ground for whooping cranes.

“To have the successful reproduction at this early stage of the project is monumental,’’ Love said last year. “It demonstrates how important the site-species relationship is for success. The critical habitat for the whooping cranes to successfully reproduce is shallow water on that fertile prairie. In southwest Louisiana, we have that type of habitat. It’s a massive habitat base that doesn’t exist in such quantities anywhere else in North America.’’

The Louisiana Way

Whooping cranes, a species only found in North America, remain on the brink of extinction with only about 600 remaining.

That’s why the whooping crane project is so vital in Louisiana. As Zimorski and Love said, the habitat in southwest Louisiana is as good as whooping cranes can find to nest, forage and raise chicks. Though it certainly won’t happen overnight and will likely take many years, the best chance to bring back a thriving whooping crane population is high in Louisiana.

Many people may question the value of whooping cranes. But here in the Bayou State bringing back species is what we do. Just look at the American alligator, brown pelican, the bald eagle and Louisiana black bear, which are all species that have recovered very well in Louisiana.

Challenges are great for the whooping crane, even in Louisiana. Of particular concern is the number of birds, 10 positively confirmed and perhaps an 11th, that have been shot and killed.

But Zimorski and other LDWF biologists involved in the whooping crane project are cautiously optimistic this can be successful.

“I think most people in Louisiana see the value in this,’’ Zimorski said. “To some people, if it’s not something they can hunt or doesn’t directly benefit them they may have a hard time understanding why time and effort and money are spent on it. But I’d say the majority of people we encounter think it’s a good thing.

“If you protect whooping cranes, you also have to protect their habitat. That benefits a lot of other species. Wetlands are important for people as well because they help protect us from hurricanes. Wetlands are important for the seafood industry. We have a great reputation of actually restoring species that are endangered. That says a lot about Louisiana.’’

How Can you Help?

Success of the whooping crane project is made possible through private and corporate donations. If you would like to support the Louisiana whooping crane project by making a tax deductible donation please contact Kell McInnis at the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation at (225) 765-5100 or kmcinnis@wlf.la.gov or visit the foundation’s website at: http://lawff.org.

More Information

Additional information on LDWF’s whooping crane project is available at http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/wildlife/whooping-cranes or on the LDWF Whooping Crane Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/lawhoopingcranes/?fref=ts). For more information, contact Zimorski at szimorski@wlf.la.gov or 337-536-9400, ext. 4.




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