Among the casualties were large numbers of whooping cranes, including 18 members of the class of 2006. None were thought to have survived.
When a deadly tornado ripped through central Florida on Feb. 1, it left people and pets dead and homes and wildlife habitat destroyed.
Among the casualties were large numbers of whooping cranes, including 18 members of the class of 2006 that were in a holding pen. None were thought to have survived.
Human caretakers at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge carefully recovered the bodies of the 17 colts, as young cranes are called. The 18th bird was believed to be buried in mud left by the storm. Now scientists are conducting necropsies, the equivalent of a human autopsy, to discover the causes of death. Lightning, drowning, body trauma, shock and fright are all possibilities.
Nobody knows how many whooping cranes we had when Europeans began settling the continent. But in the 1860s it was believed there were about 700 to 1,400. In the years that followed the numbers dwindled from hunting and the collection of eggs and adults.
The last confirmed pair of breeding whooping cranes in Minnesota was in 1876 near Elbow Lake in Grant County. By 1890 the birds had disappeared from the north-central U.S. In 1937, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in Texas to protect the wintering grounds of migratory cranes. Less than five years later only 15 wintering whoopers were left on site.
In nearby Louisiana it also looked grim for the last non-migratory flock of cranes. A mere 13 birds made up the entire population. Tragically, a storm killed seven. Over the next several years five more died, leaving a solitary survivor.
In 1950 that lone bird was captured and shipped to the single remaining migratory flock at Aransas NWR, but the other cranes fatally attacked it. Back then the idea of introducing animals into existing populations was novel. Wildlife managers learned from trial and error. Today there's a sophisticated protocol and, consequently, considerably more success.
At that time nobody knew where migratory whoopers spent late spring and summer. In 1954 a fire-fighting crew discovered the Aransas flock in northern Alberta. Recovery and re-introduction ideas were hatched. Eggs were gathered from Canadian nests and hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. A second migratory population was established at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.
Much has transpired in the 50-plus years since the firefighters found the summering whoopers in Canada. Some endeavors failed and others succeeded. A successful venture was the launching of Operation Migration, in which crane colts are hatched in Wisconsin and led via airplane to wintering grounds in Florida.
The class of 2006 birds arrived in January and were being given time to adjust to their new surroundings, recover from the long flight, be sure they had no injuries or illnesses and to hold off predators until the birds were accustomed to the unfamiliar habitat. The cranes were out of the enclosure and doing well. But wild cranes raided the youngsters food supply and so the caretakers covered the pen.
After the terrible twister departed a ray of sunshine emerged. One member of the class, the bird thought buried in the mud, showed up some distance away in the company of sandhill cranes. It was heartwarming news for bird lovers worldwide.
If you would like to make a donation to the class of 2007, contact Operation Migration or the International Crane Foundation. More information can be found at these web sites: Operation Migration (www.operationmigration.org), International Crane Foundation (www.savingcranes.org), Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (www.bringbackthecranes.org).
ANDREA LEE LAMBRECHT, naturalist and outdoors photographer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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