Whooping Cranes Return to Louisiana…Looking Back and Moving Forward

By Carrie Salyers and Sara Zimorski

It’s been almost a year since the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), along with partner organizations, returned whooping cranes to the state for the first time since 1950. The year has been a rollercoaster of events, some being positive experiences and others that we could have done without. The following is a recap of our first year and a summary of the outcome of the first group of 10 juvenile whooping cranes that were released in the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area (WLWCA) on February 16, 2011.

It all began on a cold day in the middle of February. Before first light, the cranes were caught and put into individual transport crates at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (PWRC) in Laurel, MD. They were then driven to the Baltimore airport where they were loaded onto a Windway Capital Corporation plane and flown to the Jennings airport in Louisiana. The cranes were in great shape after their flight from PWRC, and after a brief exam they were placed in a small top-netted pen within the larger 1.5-acre open release pen. They had no trouble adapting and were seen catching and eating crawfish the very next morning. Several days after they arrived, each bird was handled so their permanent bands and transmitters could be attached. Each bird received a solar powered GPS satellite transmitter on one leg, a unique combination of smaller color bands on the other leg, and a metal United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) band. While it sounds like a lot, the unique color combinations allow us to identify each individual and the transmitter collects GPS locations three times a day. This allows us to know where the birds are, and assess the habitat they are using at those different times.

After a month, the birds were ready to be released. It’s hard to imagine, but this would be the first time they had truly been allowed to fly free even though they had been capable of flying since they were three months old. While ultimately successful, the actual release day didn’t go quite as anticipated. Several birds were reluctant to walk through the narrow doorway into the open pen. The door was left open allowing those birds the opportunity to come out when they were ready, which took several days for a few of them. Reluctant to walk through the doorway on the first day, L5-10, had apparently had enough of the pen and the other birds, because once she came out of the top-netted pen she flew outside and never returned to the pen. She moved north in the marsh and after just a short while she moved further north to crawfish fields in Acadia Parish.

The initial plan was to encourage the birds to roost in the pen at night to keep them safe from predators while they still learned the ways of the marsh, this only worked for the first few nights. We continued to encourage them to roost in the pen, but night after night they would fly out at sunset and roost at a location of their choosing. Initially this caused some worry, but each day all nine of them would return. Food was provided in the pen through early May, after which it was removed to encourage the birds to disperse, and disperse they did. The birds visited seven different parishes (not including Acadia, where L5-10 was already settled and Vermilion where they were released) and southeast Texas on their first weekend away from the pen. After that adventure they all returned to the pen site one last time before breaking up into smaller groups and moving to other areas.

Three birds, L2, L4 and L7, remained in the marsh but moved to the west side where more water was present. Four birds, L1, L3, L8 and L10, moved to a rice field in Evangeline Parish and remained there for almost two months. This left L6 and L9, independent females who moved to separate locations on their own.

Mortality was expected, and shortly after the birds moved away from the release pen we experienced our first death. In late May, data from L9’s transmitter indicated a likely mortality, but the area was inaccessible due to flooding. By mid-summer we were able to access the area and found her transmitter as well as a small amount of remains confirming our suspicions. Around the same time, L6’s transmitter stopped functioning, even though the data had looked normal until it stopped working. We searched the areas she had last been in, from the ground and air, but never found anything. She is considered missing but presumed dead since there has been no data or sightings of her since that time.

In mid-June a local landowner north of White Lake contacted us to report that L7 was injured. She was captured and placed in the top-netted pen to be evaluated and treated, unfortunately, she was quite sick. After two weeks of treatment and two trips to the LSU veterinary school, there was little improvement; she had developed a respiratory infection so the decision was made to humanely euthanize her.

Throughout the summer the remaining seven birds settled in their locations, and our focus shifted to collecting data on their habitats. Later in the summer and into the fall, agricultural areas that five of the birds were using changed. As rice maturing and later harvested, water being drawn down, and other fields re-flooded, the birds began moving around, making it more challenging to track them.

Sadly in early October, L8 and L10 were shot and killed by two juveniles in Jefferson Davis Parish. L1 who had been with them disappeared at the same time and has not been seen since, reducing the number of surviving birds to likely only four. While a disappointing setback, the project continued forward by offering more education and outreach to prevent this from happening again.

Every cloud has a silver lining and ours throughout the tragic shooting event was the sense of unity that developed among the people of Louisiana who support the whooping cranes; people of all ages, hunters and non-hunters voiced concern and outrage over the shooting incident. The state of Louisiana was stripped of two of its finest treasures that day in early October. This event caused residents to realize it has taken 60 years for the cranes to return home and that a senseless act such as an intentional shooting cannot occur on our state watch. We have had overwhelming support for the remaining birds and the project since that event and sincerely appreciate the support of our state and others across the nation!

In the remaining months of 2011, our focus shifted to the arrival of the second cohort of birds. Louisiana was scheduled to receive 16 new birds, seven males and nine females, on December 1, 2011. Sadly the excitement over the arrival of our 16 new birds was marred by the discovery that L2-10 was dead, likely killed by a predator. As the 16 new residents of Louisiana were unloaded, we were saddened to realize that our first cohort of ten was now down to three.

On December 1, 2011, the birds arrived on two USFWS aircraft equipped with floats for water landings. The planes landed in the Intercoastal Canal and taxied on the water to a nearby dock. The birds were unloaded and transported to the top-netted pen after all had passed their initial health check. A week after the birds arrived, they received their permanent identification, again in the form of a unique combination of color bands and transmitters. As with the first cohort of birds, several weeks later they were released into the open pen free to fly for the first time.

On December 27, 2012, the second cohort was released to the open pen and the marshes of southwest Louisiana. As the new cohort was adjusting to the area, a bird from last year’s cohort, L4-10, has returned to meet the new birds. Most of the cohort has taken a liking to him, and spend a lot of time with him, both in and outside the pen. The others are tolerant of him until he comes near the food shelter at which time they defend their territory and chase him away. Currently, there is still food in the pen for the cranes so they have stayed relatively close to White Lake but they are gradually ranging further away from the pen and exploring new areas, particularly in the evenings for roost and in the mornings.

In the next few weeks the food will be removed and the project will transition to tracking the birds, monitoring their habitats and evaluating the areas they frequent. Blog updates for both cohorts will continue on the department’s website at: http://wlf.louisiana.gov/wildlife/whooping-cranes.