The ending of an unlikely success story
People in south Louisiana don’t often pay attention to news from a relatively obscure research facility in Maryland, but the announcement that the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center is winding down its whooping crane breeding program has a special connection to us.
In 1967, biologists at the center began to carefully nurture a dozen eggs gathered from the nests of a species on the verge of extinction. There were only 42 whooping cranes left in the world, none of them in Louisiana. Fifty years later, thanks in good part to the Patuxent program, there are more than 160 whoopers in captivity and another 400-plus living in the wild. About a quarter of the birds in the wild are in Louisiana, in a flock begun with chicks hatched in Maryland.
John French, the center’s director, told reporters, “We feel as if our job is done,” but the decision to close down the program was forced on him when the federal government in its wisdom cut its funding. About 30 Maryland chicks will find homes in the south Louisiana wetlands, where it appears that an imaginative (some people said crazy) idea to rebuild a flock looks like it wasn’t so silly after all.
A long time ago, when there was a good-sized Louisiana flock, the 6-foot-tall, distinctively marked birds were apparently something to see as they stretched their wings to seven feet or more and sailed on the breeze. Claude Eagleston was reared in the south Louisiana wetlands and was in his 80s in 1998, when writer Gay Gomez asked him about the birds.
“It was beautiful to see them up there in the sky,” he recalled, “always seven or eight in a bunch, circling and crossing each other like people square dancing. You could hear them for a long way.” (A Wetland Biography: Seasons on Louisiana’s Chenier Plain, University of Texas Press, 1998)
But hunters, hurricanes, and habitat loss doomed the Louisiana flock. By 1938 only 11 whooping cranes lived in the Louisiana marshes. Thirteen of them were counted the next year. Only six survived 1940, when a hurricane and flood destroyed much habitat and killed some birds outright. Two years later there were only five, then four in 1943, three in 1944, two in 1945 and 1946, and, finally, a bird nicknamed Lone Crane became the last Louisiana whooper in 1947.
The experts knew Lone Crane would never find love, or even friendship, in the Vermilion Parish marshes, and decided to do something about that. They captured the big bird and took it to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, where a migratory flock came to visit every year.
That was the last time the distinctive whooping call was heard in the Louisiana marsh for more than 60 years.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries announced in August 2010 that it would “attempt to establish a non-migratory flock of whooping cranes … in the wetlands, marshes and prairies of southwest Louisiana.” The goal was to build a self-sustaining flock of 25 breeding pairs over 10 years.
Skeptics scoffed at the idea, but in early 2011 the first 10 birds from the Patuxent center were released into state-owned wetlands south of Gueydan near White Lake. Just three of the first group were still being tracked when 16 more chicks were brought to Louisiana that December. Two of the first 10 cranes had been killed by predators, one was euthanized when it got sick, two were killed by “hunters,” and two had just disappeared. But the biologists were undeterred, and more young birds have been sent successfully to Louisiana since those first groups.
There was a lot of excitement in the spring of 2014, when the biologists spotted a nest holding the first whooping crane eggs seen in the wild in Louisiana in 75 years. Those two eggs never hatched, but they were a harbinger of good things to come. In 2016, two chicks were hatched and one survived. One out of three chicks survived in 2017. Five of five survived in 2018. The outlook gets better as more birds reach breeding age and the flock gets bigger.
The 75 cranes in the Patuxent breeding flock will be sent to the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin and the Calgary, Canada, Zoo. Folks in those places say the program will go on, and that presumably means birds will continue to be sent to Louisiana.
That’s good, but bittersweet news. Mike Pharr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, summed up the feeling at Patuxent: “This is about budget cuts from above, and it’s very sad to see.” It’s more than sad for Patuxent staffers who have spent their entire careers working with whoopers that can live 25 or 30 years.
It was “an emotional blow” to many of them to cage up and send away birds that are practically pets, French said.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.