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03 February 2007

Central Florida storms kill flock of endangered whooping cranes

Saturday, February 3, 2007, 5:52 am
Associated Press

Central Florida storms kill flock of endangered whooping cranes

MILWAUKEE -- All 18 endangered young whooping cranes that were led south from Wisconsin last fall as part of a project to create a second migratory flock of the birds were killed in storms in Florida, a spokesman said.

The cranes were being kept in an enclosure at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, Fla., when violent storms moved in Thursday night, said Joe Duff, co-founder of Operation Migration, the organization coordinating the project.

"The birds were checked in late afternoon the day before, and they were fine," he said Friday.

The area of the enclosure was unreachable by workers at night, and all the birds were found dead, Duff said. He speculated that a strong storm surge drew the tide in and overwhelmed the birds. The official cause of the deaths was not immediately known, but he said it may have been drowning.

The thunderstorms and at least one tornado that hit central Florida caused widespread damage and killed at least 19 people.

For the past six years, whooping cranes hatched in captivity have been raised at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin by workers who wear crane-like costumes to keep the birds wary of humans.

Ultralight aircraft are used to teach new groups of young cranes the migration route to Florida. From then on, the birds migrate north in the spring and south in the fall on their own.

Duff described the loss as an "unavoidable disaster" for the whooping cranes project that ironically followed a milestone.

For the first time in six years, an entire group of young birds reared at the Necedah refuge had made it to the Florida refuge without the loss of a single crane.

The project's previous losses all involved individual birds killed by predators or fatally injured in accidents.

"It's a fluke. It's an unforeseen thing," Duff said. "So many birds and they were such good birds. It was our hardest migration and our most difficult one to fund."

The various groups and agencies working on the project had seen the size of the flock grow to 81 birds with the latest arrivals, but the loss of the young cranes drops the total back to 63, and there may have been additional losses.

Duff said there was no way of knowing whether other whooping cranes that winter in the area had survived the storm.

Operation Migration is part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. Partnership officials and Duff said the work would continue.

Members of the whooping crane recovery team were meeting in Louisiana when the Florida storm occurred, going over the past year's progress and setting goals for this year, when they learned what had happened, Duff said.

After the initial shock, "it just reinforced the support and determination to get this done," he said.

The whooping crane, the tallest bird in North America, was near extinction in 1941, with only about 20 left.

The other wild whooping crane flock in North America has about 200 birds and migrates from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migratory flock in Florida has about 60 birds.

Re the comment that the loss was an 'unavoidable disaster'... am I being naive in thinking they should have let the cranes out of the enclosure, so they might have stood a chance? In which case, the disaster was certainly avoidable. If they can reach it during the day, why can't they reach it at night? And they certainly knew some bad storms were on the way. Obviously, I don't have all the facts, but it seems, from what is reported here, they were careless - or foolish.

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EDIT: I've been scanning the Operation Migration website, hoping to learn why the birds were kept in a pen. There doesn't seem to be any explanation. Apparently, these birds were all juveniles and whenever the adult birds came around, the young'uns were herded back into the pen. The only hint was a comment about the adults hogging the food and water.

I did learn that, apparently, an airboat is needed to get to the pen. Reckon I wouldn't be out on a dark and stormy night in an airboat myownself! I'll be interesed to see what changes are made after this.

It's really hard for me to read stories like this. I'm way too soft-hearted and empahetic. I start thinking about how the poor birds must have felt... how frightened they had to have been... It's like telling myself, 'don't think about elephants'. 8-/


Cathy S. said...

I have a friend who works for the Florida Wildlife Commission, she says the people who carried for the cranes are devestated. They feel like they lost some children. In their effort to protect the "kids", they harmed them. Sounds like some mistakes I have made as a parent so I can relate.

Hurricane Teen said...

This story saddens me too, but when I start thinking about how those poor people must have frightened they had to have been...all 20 of those who died in the storms and everybody else...that REALLY saddens me.

SophieMae said...

Cathy, I know just what you mean. It was a heart-breaking way to learn a hard lesson. I do hope the program continues to grow and becomes more and more successful.

HurTeen, that's one reason I stopped reading any news at all for a long time. It was just too hard on me emotionally. Oddly, if the story involves a child or old person, I'm affected far more, as I feel they were relatively helpless, therefore more frightened or more hurt. Not very logical, I know, but...

Anonymous said...

Wow - it just keeps getting worse, huh? That's just rubbing salt in the wound.

Hopefully, the project will get back up and running - only just a little for the wiser after this difficult (and no doubt costly) experience.

That goes double for the families affected - may they get back up and running twice as fast, and may they be able to see some light through the experioence that we can't discern from the outside.

Either way, you said it sophiemae - this stuff gets hard to read, but I'd still rather know than not know. So thanks for sharing it.

Floridacracker said...

I heard that on the radio driving to work and my heart sank. Those guys probably fly right over my place (or close to it) on their way to Chas NWR and I felt a certain attachment to them.

SophieMae said...

TF, yes I'd rather know, though it never seems to get any easier to take.

FC, what a sight that must be to see those birds fying over! Here's hoping you look up one day in the not-too-distant future and see dozens.
PS - thanks ever so for the nice compliment you posted about me 'over there'. Good to know I can still blush after all these years. 8-]

Anonymous said...

LOL - No one ever doubted that heaping helpings of grace can be had here!

The only person whose grace was under question was mine. Alas, it wasn't the first time...

Currently working on it.

Hurricane Teen said...

sophie - I get that same feeling about children and the elderly...especially the elderly with me. I think it's a natural human emotion that we all have.