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Lovesick whooping crane Romeo gets home with his Juliet in Homosassa Springs

Romeo, the lovesick whooping crane, checks out his new home Friday in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where he will be with Peepers, the object of his affection in recent years.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Romeo, the lovesick whooping crane, checks out his new home Friday in Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where he will be with Peepers, the object of his affection in recent years.

HOMOSASSA SPRINGS —Fate has smiled on Romeo, the lovesick whooping crane.

After federal officials decided Thursday he could no longer remain in the wild because he can't stay away from Peepers, a female residing in a state park in Citrus County, his future was unclear.

Would he be sent to some far-away park, to be put on educational display while his years-long love for Peepers remained unrequited?

On Friday, Cupid intervened. Officials placed Romeo at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where he soon will be spending his days with his beloved Peepers.

His trackers took him from a holding pen in the Withlacoochee State Forest, where he had been held since his latest unauthorized encounter with Peepers last weekend, to the park.

Romeo had his wings clipped, and he was put in the night house of the display. "We'll let him out tomorrow when everybody can keep an eye on him,'' said park manager Art Yerian.

Eva Szyszkoski, tracking field manager for the International Crane Foundation, took off her crane costume helmet to see the bird's reaction. Whooping cranes see only costumed humans from the time they hatch so that they don't associate with people, for their own protection.

Romeo had no reaction, a clear sign that he wasn't afraid of people, she said.

Romeo was in the first group of whooping cranes to follow ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida 10 years ago in the experimental program to reintroduce whoopers to the eastern part of the country. The 10th group of ultralight-led cranes arrived in Marion County on Friday.

For several years, Romeo migrated without incident back to Wisconsin in the spring, then made the 1,200-mile trek to Florida in the winter. Along the way, he bonded with a female crane, but she was found dead in Hernando County early in 2007.

Weeks later, he showed up at the Homosassa Springs park looking for Peepers. Since then, he has visited six times.

Whooping cranes mate for life, and Romeo eventually found another mate. But he lost her when a bobcat killed her in early 2010.

Each time Romeo flew to the park, officials had to capture and remove him. After last weekend's fly-in, officials who oversee the whooping crane reintroduction program knew they had to make a change.

Because of his chronic misbehavior, the trouble he caused at the park, his lack of breeding success and the surplus of male cranes in the population, officials decided to pull him from the wild population.

On Friday, Tom Stehn, the whooping crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said because Romeo is 100 percent healthy, he will form a better bond with Peepers than she has with Rocky, the male in the enclosure with her now.

Rocky has a throat condition that makes it hard for him to make crane calls, and crane calling is an important part of pair bonding for the birds. Rocky will likely land at another facility, possibly even the National Zoo in Washington.

As for Romeo, the move makes sense, Stehn said. "Homosassa is kind of attached to him,'' he said.

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

Lovesick whooping crane Romeo gets home with his Juliet in Homosassa Springs 01/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 10:48pm]
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