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Nature Scenes: Whooping cranes have come back from near-extinction
By Lynn Bowen
posted Nov 4, 2012 - 9:57:11am
The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America, and is related to the popular sandhill cranes that we see here in Florida.
The whoopers, who are named after their famous call, are 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of a little over 7 feet! The male weighs 15 pounds, and the female is 2 pounds lighter.
This white-plumed beauty with a long neck and long legs has black-tipped wings, a red crown, and a long, dark, pointed bill. When flying, he looks like an arrow, with his neck straight ahead and his legs straight behind.
Whooping cranes are endangered. They are not fussy eaters, and they forage for crustaceans, fish, rodents, insects, berries, plants and grains. Their territory is in wetlands between central Canada and Texas. Experimentally introduced populations in Idaho, New Mexico and Florida account for only a few of the birds now.
In 1941, an alarmingly small number of wild, migratory whooping cranes — only 15 — were living. They were on the brink of extinction, mainly because of loss of habitat and unregulated hunting.
Bird-loving people decided to try to turn around the catastrophe and increase the whooping-crane population. In 1988, a program to do this was started at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. Some whooping cranes were put in captivity and carefully nurtured. Another place in the West has a similar program.
Female whooping cranes only lay one or two eggs per year, and, in the programs, the eggs are taken from the mothers and replaced with fake eggs. Humans care for the real eggs. Since baby whooping cranes bond with whatever is close to them when they hatch, some people dress up in costumes to look like adult whoopers. Some captive-hatched, costume-raised chicks are now living among older cranes. The costumed humans train the chicks how to find food and to follow them, so that when adulthood arrives the chicks will follow an ultra-light plane that faintly resembles their mother. Once they reach their destination, they are on their own in the wild.
About a dozen whooping cranes have annually made the flight from Wisconsin to Florida. Not all survive the journey, and even when they are at their destination, predators such as bears, foxes, eagles, bobcats and alligators take some whooping-crane lives. But humans are doing their absolute best to save these gorgeous, rare birds.
As of 2011, there were approximately 535 whoopers in the world. Their life span is about 22 years if they are able to overcome the many hardships in their lives. In addition to predators, those hardships include drought, lack of food, and accidents.
A few years ago, two whooping cranes lived in Volusia County among sandhill cranes, but the whoopers didn't survive their third season here. On a happy note, the whooping-crane population in the United States and Canada has increased through the years. Each bird is a rare treasure, because so few exist!
— Bowen lives in DeLand. Send email to her at email@example.com.
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