Louisiana’s Whooping Crane Population, Though Young, Learning How To Be Productive Parents
story by TRey Iles, LDWF Public Information
First-time parents have a steep learning curve. The how-to books seem to have all the answers but until you actually deal with a crying newborn by yourself at 2:30 a.m., you don’t have a full appreciation for parenthood and the demands made by this new life.
In a way, whooping cranes in Louisiana’s experimental population, which began in 2011, are going through the same thing. This nascent group is young and learning as it goes along when it comes to rearing young. Reproduction in the group, a vital part of reestablishing a viable population of whooping cranes in the Bayou State, has been slow. But it’s also steady.
The count of the population increased by one this spring. Though the number may not seem big, it’s another positive step forward in the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ whooping crane reintroduction project.
At least six chicks hatched with one making it to the fledgling stage, signifying when the birds are able to fly. In 2019, six chicks hatched but none survived. Louisiana’s current whooping crane population is 76 as of this writing.
A total of 21 chicks have hatched in Louisiana during the project, the first in 2016. One additional chick hatched to Louisiana cranes who nested in southeast Texas this spring but it did not survive. Prior to this year, 16 had hatched with seven fledging and eventually becoming independent of their parents. This is an important marker in the project as the Louisiana breeding pairs figure out the process of raising chicks.
Support of partners including Chevron, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Nature Institute, Coypu Foundation, Entergy, Cameron LNG, SLEMCO, International Crane Foundation and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation (LWFF) have allowed LDWF to expand its effort in Louisiana.
“We’d certainly like to see better results and better survival rates with the chicks,” said Sara Zimorski, an LDWF biologist who works on the whooping crane project. “It’s hard to remember at times, but overall, our population is still young and the majority of the breeding pairs are still relatively inexperienced, but we’re excited about the direction in which we’re heading.”
Whooping cranes are slow to mature and only lay one to two eggs during a nesting attempt, so reproduction can be a slow process. The cranes normally don’t reach sexual maturity until 3-5 years old and the cranes when introduced into Louisiana have been less than 1 year-old.
“Although our progress seems slow we have to remember our oldest bird is still only 9 years old,” Zimorski said. “These are birds that can live 20-25 years in the wild and some of the pairs don’t begin nesting until they are 4. The majority of our population is still young so it takes time, time for them to find a mate and time for them to establish a territory and nest for the first time.
“We’re seeing good, positive steps. I think we’re seeing more initial success with the production of fertile eggs or even hatching a chick with some of the younger pairs. I think that bodes well for the future.”
Though Zimorski said patience is key, she would like to see reproduction move along at a quicker pace. However, compared to other reintroduction projects, Louisiana’s is on par with previous efforts at this point in time. But Zimorski said she’d like for long term survival of the chicks to improve.
“We’re still seeing some issues with certain pairs who produce fertile eggs that die during the incubation period for reasons that we haven’t yet been able to determine,” Zimorski said. “On the other hand we’re seeing newer, younger parents who are producing fertile eggs and who are hatching chicks their first or second time nesting. A young breeding pair hatched a chick in Calcasieu Parish this year. They nested for the first time last year when the female was only 2, but the eggs didn’t hatch. This year they nested on the same farm and hatched a chick and kept it alive for a couple of weeks.
“These are stepping stones. They’re not typically successful the first time they hatch and raise a chick. They’re learning. They have to figure out so many things. It can happen but it’s rare to see them pull it off the first time.”
The one chick that hatched, fledged, and is alive as of this writing was in Jeff Davis Parish and was raised by the most experienced pair, who between them have now fledged five chicks since 2016. Zimorski said it is possible there have been more hatchings. Some of the pairs likely nested in remote areas of marsh that have not been able to be checked aerially due to ongoing restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The crane chicks grow fast, about an inch a day and by the time they’re three months old, they’re fully grown, stand 4.5 to 5 feet tall, and can fly though they’ll continue to remain with their parents until they’re around 10 months old.
“They’re vulnerable until they’ve fledged so that fast growth rate helps them quickly get to the point where they can evade predators by flying away,” Zimorski said.
Louisiana’s whooping crane reintroduction project began in 2011 when 10 whooping cranes from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center were released at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish to initiate the non-migratory flock. This marked a significant conservation milestone with the first wild whooping cranes in Louisiana since 1950. Each year since, more whooping cranes have been added to the initial flock usually in November or December.
But that won’t be the case this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The captive breeding centers that provide the juvenile cranes are facing financial hardships emanating from the virus and had to make changes to their normal breeding and operating procedures in order to keep their staff safe and healthy during this unprecedented spring. The result is a year with very few fertile eggs produced and no chicks available to release into the wild.
“That’s certainly not great news for us,” Zimorski said. “And it’s something that you couldn’t have predicted. It will have an impact on not just our population but the other on-going reintroduction project, with our populations hopefully remaining stable but not likely growing much without a new cohort of juveniles released. That makes the reproduction efforts in our project that much more important. The higher that can get the better. And we believe as our population ages, that will happen. But there is no mistaking not getting captive chicks doesn’t help us.”
Last year, 11 juvenile whooping cranes were added to the population from the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin and the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans, part of the Audubon Nature Institute.
If you see a whooping crane...
Anyone encountering a whooping crane is advised to observe the bird from a distance and to report the sighting to LDWF at: www.wlf.la.gov/page/report-a-whooping-crane-sighting-or-violation. Whooping cranes are large-bodied, white birds with a red head and black facial markings. Birds measure a height of five 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.
If you see Suspicious Activity...
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.
For more information on the whooping crane project, go to www.wlf.la.gov/subhome/whooping-crane and www.facebook.com/lawhoopingcranes.
To see how you can support the project, go to www.wlf.la.gov/page/support-whooping-crane-conservation or www.lawff.org.
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