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Eastern U.S. whooping cranes hatch a baby boom in wild

Whooping cranes going to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge are guided by an ultralight in January near Dunnellon airport. Fifteen chicks are being trained this year.

MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times

Whooping cranes going to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge are guided by an ultralight in January near Dunnellon airport. Fifteen chicks are being trained this year.

CHASSAHOWITZKA — There's been a baby boom in the whooping crane population as a record number of the re-established birds have hatched in the wild in Wisconsin this spring.

Seven whooping crane chicks have hatched in the area of the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in recent weeks. That is more than the total number of hatches combined since the program to reintroduce a migrating flock of endangered whooping cranes to the eastern United States began 10 years ago. There are now 100 cranes in that flock.

One of the seven, however, has been lost and another is missing. Despite that, those involved in the reintroduction are thrilled to have so many successful nests this year after so much frustration in recent years.

"It's definitely exciting," said Liz Condi, a spokeswoman for Operation Migration, which raises chicks and teaches them to migrate to Florida each fall behind ultralight aircraft. Some are led to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge at the Citrus-Hernando line and the rest to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle.

"You can't help but get sort of emotional about hatch success," she said. "It gives us some much-needed optimism."

Whooping cranes, which reach sexual maturity in three to five years, have been nesting each year since the first group matured, but eggs have been infertile and some nests have been abandoned. The chicks hatched this year are from parents that nested earlier in the season and had nests fail but then nested again.

Researchers connected with the project are studying whether the nest failures are the result of biting black flies that swarm Necedah during the nesting season.

Last year, two chicks were hatched in the wild but both were lost. The only other hatches were in 2006 when a crane pair produced two chicks. One chick survived to learn the migration route behind its parents, the first whooping crane to do so in the eastern United States in more than a century.

That crane, called Wild 601, is spending its summer in Necedah.

Operation Migration expects to see the first batch of captive-hatched chicks delivered from Maryland to Necedah to continue ultralight training next week. Fifteen chicks are tapped for this year's ultralight Class of 2010.

In a post on the Operation Migration website, Condi described the cautious optimism the team feels about the prospect of wild-raised birds surviving until migration and not needing an ultralight to lead them to Florida.

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

Eastern U.S. whooping cranes hatch a baby boom in wild 06/21/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 21, 2010 11:50pm]
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