Louisiana’s Whooping Cranes Produce An Impressive Five Hatched, Fledged Chicks In 2018

story by TRey Iles, LDWF Public Information

photos by Gabe Giffin, LDWF Public Information

Baby steps. Or chick steps may be more appropriate in this case.

When Louisiana’s whooping crane reintroduction program launched in 2011, those who hatched the plan knew patience would be needed. Whooping cranes, whose numbers flourished in Louisiana up until the 20th century then completely disappeared by 1950, don’t breed like rabbits.

It takes them a while to sexually mature. Then when they do mate they usually produce just one chick per pair once a year in the spring.

The process of bringing back the whooping crane would be slow simply because reproduction is a pain-staking process.

But 2018 proved to be a banner year.

Five whooping crane chicks hatched and fledged this summer in southwest Louisiana, marking a major milestone in the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries whooping crane reintroduction project. The five chicks are the most to hatch in one year in the nascent project, which launched in 2011.

The first chicks hatched in 2016 with one chick fledging, followed by three chicks hatching in 2017, also with a single fledgling surviving.

“This year was a big step forward and we’re excited and pleased,’’ said Sara Zimorski, an LDWF biologist with the whooping crane reintroduction project. “To see young birds producing their own fertile eggs and to be successful in raising a chick is a sure sign of progress. To have five chicks this year only two years after we had the first chick hatching, it’s a pretty significant jump. We hope we’ll continue to see improvement as we have more pairs that mature and start to breed.’’

Louisiana’s whooping crane reintroduction project began in 2011 when 10 juvenile whooping cranes from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center were released at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish to develop the non-migratory flock. This marked a significant conservation milestone with the first whooping cranes in the wild in Louisiana since 1950. Each year since, more whooping cranes have been added to the initial flock and the current population is 66 (61 adults plus the five chicks hatched this spring).

Support of partners including Chevron, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Nature Institute, U.S. Geological Survey, Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Coypu Foundation, Entergy, Cameron LNG, International Crane Foundation and the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation have allowed LDWF to expand its effort in Louisiana.

Whooping cranes are slow to mature and only lay one to two eggs during the spring. The cranes normally don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 3-5 years old and the birds introduced into Louisiana have been less than 1 year-old.

“A 3-year-old laying eggs or hatching a chick isn’t always successful the first time,’’ Zimorski said. “Sometimes it takes several years. This year, some pairs were successful the first go-around. That was great to see. Additionally, we had some younger members of pairs that were successful in raising these chicks. Of these pairs that successfully raised chicks two of the males were only 2 years old, which is on the young side. It’s really encouraging to see young birds starting to reproduce and actually being successful.’’

The cranes were hatched in late April and early May. They grow fast, about an inch a day and by the time they’re three months old, they stand 4.5 to 5 feet tall.

“The reason they grow so fast is so they can evade predators,’’ Zimorski said. “They’re vulnerable until they’ve fledged so the parents care for them and protect them. Typically, whooping crane chicks will remain with their parents for around 10 months.’’

All five chicks hatched on private lands in southwest Louisiana, in crawfish fields. Zimorski said the cooperation of private landowners and farmers is vital to the success of the project.

“The birds really like this habitat and they’ll continue to use it,’’ Zimorski said. “So our ongoing partnership with these landowners and farmers is very important and we thank them for their support.’’

Though one chick is the norm, one pair successfully fledged two chicks.

“That happens occasionally but it’s not very common for a pair to successfully raise two chicks,’’ Zimorski said. “Even if they have two eggs and hatch two chicks typically one chick will be lost or predated while it’s young and vulnerable. To have a pair succeed in raising two chicks was another huge step. Additionally, several of these pairs are young and most of them are first-time parents. A lot of firsts, a lot of positive signs with these five chicks and families.’’

LDWF biologists assisted two of the whooping crane pairs in the process. Two of the chicks were hatched from captive eggs from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center that were substituted into the nests. Zimorski said though it may not be the crane pair’s own chick the important thing is to have the cranes gain experience by hatching and raising a chick.

“One pair had fertile eggs before but the embryos died during incubation,’’ Zimorski said. “As we work to figure out why that has happened we have, both last year and this year, substituted a different hatching egg into the nest. The pair will return and hatch and raise that chick as if it was their very own. The end result is we still get a chick in the wild.’’

Among the reasons for the successful hatching and breeding is the habitat in southwest Louisiana.

When the reintroduction project began in 2011, it was thought the birds would stay close to White Lake because it was considered to be ideal habitat in a coastal marsh.

However, many moved out of the marsh and found the rice and crawfish fields in parishes to the north of Vermilion, such as Jefferson Davis, Acadia and Allen. Some even ventured into southeast Texas.

“I don’t believe we thought that they would spend as much time, let alone be nesting and raising chicks, in agriculture settings,’’ Zimorski said. “That has been a surprise. But it’s a pleasant one.’’

Because of agricultural need and use, the Cajun Prairie in southwest Louisiana has been altered significantly since the cranes were in abundance in the 19th century. But the agricultural habitat, like rice and crawfish fields, is similar in some ways to what was originally here.

The critical habitat for the whooping crane to successfully reproduce is shallow water on fertile coastal prairie. Southwest Louisiana has an abundance of that type of habitat. It’s a massive habitat base that doesn’t exist in such quantities anywhere else in North America.

“The birds really like that habitat,’’ Zimorski said. “A crawfish field is managed as a shallow wetland, which is the type of habitat whooping cranes prefer. This habitat provides everything they need in one field. They have a safe place to build their nests, and to roost at night in a shallowly flooded field. Obviously, these fields have crawfish but they also have snakes, frogs and insects, a lot of food for the adults as well as the growing chicks.

“A lot of the farms are relatively isolated. Despite the daily activity during crawfish season, there isn’t a lot of human activity and disturbance. So the birds have everything they need to be successful.’’

Anyone encountering a whooping crane is advised to observe the bird from a distance and to report the sighting to LDWF (www.wlf.la.gov/webform/whooping-crane-reporting-form). Whooping cranes are large-bodied, white birds with a red head and black facial markings. Birds measure a height of 5 feet and have a wingspan of 7-8 feet that makes them very distinctive. In flight, whooping cranes display black wing tips, a fully extended neck and legs which extend well beyond the tail.

Anyone witnessing suspicious activity involving whooping cranes is advised to call the LDWF’s Enforcement Division at 1-800-442-2511 or use the tip411 program, which may offer a cash reward for information leading to arrests or convictions. To use the tip411 program, citizens can text LADWF and their tip to 847411 or download the “LADWF Tips” iPhone app from the Apple iTunes store free of charge. Citizen Observer, the tip411 provider, uses technology that removes all identifying information before LDWF receives the text so that LDWF cannot identify the sender.

Additional Information

For videos, photos, interviews and other background information, go to ldwf.cantoflight.com/v/WhoopingCraneChicks/landing.

For more information on the whooping crane reintroduction project go to www.wlf.la.gov/wildlife/whooping-cranes or check out the Facebook whooping crane page.


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