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Captive whooping crane eggs offer hope for endangered species

HOMOSASSA SPRINGS — Art Yerian carefully cradled the speckled beige object in his rubber-gloved hands, recognizing it as a rare and precious possibility.

He slid it slowly down into a bright stream of light.

"You see that air sack,'' he said, as the high-intensity egg candler lit up the large egg making it appear to glow in the dark.

Then he carefully did the same thing with the second egg. "There's an air sack on that one also,'' he said. "You can see that there's some kind of embryo.''

While not proof that the eggs were viable, it was enough to give hope that, in about three weeks, there may be new additions to the population of endangered whooping cranes, America's tallest bird.

And these additions would be the first ever conceived at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Federal and state officials said they did not know of any captive whooping cranes in Florida that have produced viable eggs.

Billy Brooks, a recovery biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he was hopeful but realistic about the Homosassa Springs eggs. The crane experts worry that these will be infertile.

But if the eggs are fertile, Brooks said, they are likely bound for one of the whooping crane reintroduction or research programs based out of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.

Chicks would mean that the Homosassa park's resident whooping cranes, Peepers and Levi, were not only serving their fellow cranes as an educational display, but they were also contributing more directly to the species' survival.

"It's a good thing, a really good thing,'' said Yerian, the park's manager. He will candle the eggs every several days until it can be determined for sure whether embryos are growing inside.

Losing potential chicks to one of the research or reintroduction programs doesn't bother Yerian.

"Being an endangered species, the main goal is to get them back out in the wild,'' Yerian said.

The reintroduced eastern migratory flock of whooping cranes only has about 100 birds. Officials are also using captive-hatched chicks to populate a new non-migratory flock in Louisiana.

The arrival of the eggs on June 9 and June 12 was a welcomed next chapter in the story of the crane parents.

Peepers hatched at Patuxent in April 2001. She had a brief time in the wild and ultimately landed at Homosassa Springs in April 2003.

But it was Levi who made the headlines.

Levi earned the nickname Romeo by visiting Peepers on his winter migrations. He was one of the cranes that first learned the 1,200-mile migration route from Wisconsin to Florida behind ultralight aircraft in 2001, the first year of the reintroduction project. He had bonded with two different mates in the wild but lost both of them.

Since 2007, he always came back to Peepers even after being moved miles — and even several states — away from her.

In January 2011, federal wildlife officials decided that Levi's chronic misbehavior as a wild crane had to be remedied. After some discussion, they chose to clip his wings and let him stay with Peepers permanently.

Peepers' previous companion, Rocky, never bonded with her because he had a throat problem that prevented him from making proper crane calls. The calls are key to the bonding of whooping cranes. After Levi's arrival, Rocky was sent to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he was celebrated as the first whooping crane at the zoo in nearly 90 years.

This was the first mating season the cranes shared the habitat at Homosassa Springs. Handlers there noticed Peepers assembling a nest weeks ago and threw extra nesting materials into the enclosure.

"This is just the perfect area with a natural spring,'' Yerian said, showing off the habitat on Tuesday. Levi was settled into the middle of the massive nest atop the sandhill crane egg that the park staff had slipped into the nest when they took the second whooping crane egg out. The large white bird was chattering soft squawks as he fulfilled his fatherly duties.

Peepers was circling the edges of the pen, more interested in the woman on the other side of the fence carrying the bucket of meal worms.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Captive whooping crane eggs offer hope for endangered species 06/20/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 8:11pm]
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