HOMOSASSA SPRINGS — Alas, poor Romeo!
The gangly lover has been in a heart-breaking search for female companionship among a tiny pool of prospective brides since 2007, when his first love was found dead in Hernando County.
Last year, he lost a second soulmate when a bobcat killed her and then dragged her body into the woods and buried her.
Love can be cruel in the world of whooping cranes, where the rare, 5-foot-tall, snow-white birds mate for life.
Romeo now has eyes only for Peepers, a sweet young thing living at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County.
His libido, however, has landed him in solitary confinement in the Withlacoochee State Forest while wildlife experts figure out what's next for him.
Officially known as 5-01, the fifth chick born in 2001, Romeo was part of the first group of whoopers led by humans — using ultralight aircraft and wearing crane costumes — from Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the Citrus/Hernando border, a trek of 1,200 miles.
The unique program follows a detailed protocol to keep the birds from having human contact. The whoopers' lullaby while in their eggs is the sound of an ultralight aircraft engine; once they peck their way into the world, their handlers use crane garb and hand puppets. Talking is prohibited around the birds.
Today, there are about 570 whooping cranes in the world, with about 400 in the wild. About 100 of those constitute the eastern migratory population.
Peepers, a captive crane, shares her space with a male whooping crane named Rocky. But Homosassa Springs park manager Art Yerian said Romeo need not worry. "They're companions, not lovers,'' he said.
Six times in recent years, Romeo has flown to the park to visit Peepers. Those visits have always ended badly.
In early 2007, a few weeks after his first mate was found dead in Hernando County, Romeo first dropped in on Peepers, much to the surprise of park officials. As soon as he appeared, out came the costumed handlers. They wanted him to keep migrating with other wild whoopers, not settling down with a captive bird. Romeo was put into a box and released in Pasco County. A day later, he was back at the park with Peepers.
Eventually, he was transported out of state.
In spring 2008, Romeo found a new love. Twice in the ensuing months, he brought her along when he visited Peepers.
Last winter, the two stayed around Chassahowitzka doing typical crane activities, such as picking on younger cranes, according to Eva Szyszkoski, tracking field manager for the International Crane Foundation.
During that time, Romeo never visited the Homosassa Springs park. But on March 18, a bobcat killed Romeo's new mate on a tidal flat in the area.
Romeo returned alone to Wisconsin a few weeks later. He was flying solo again when he arrived at Chassahowitzka last week.
On Saturday, Romeo was back at the Homosassa Springs park, looking for Peepers.
Out came the costume-wearing handlers, who cornered him, put him into a box and hauled him miles away into the woods before he could come into contact with park visitors.
Over the years, the park has tried to keep Romeo out by putting a net over the whooping crane area so that he couldn't see Peepers from the air. When officials are alerted by his radio tracking device, they scramble.
"You never know where he's going to land,'' Yerian said. At least once he landed in the bear enclosure. Fortunately, the bears were not in it at the time.
"It's really too bad,'' said Liz Condie, a spokeswoman for Operation Migration, the organization that trains the cranes and leads them to Florida. "It seems that when he is on his own, he's up to mischief.''
Romeo's unrequited love has now come back to bite him.
Szyszkoski said Thursday that officials have decided to pull Romeo from the wild crane population, but where he will end up has not been determined.
It's costly to keep — and track — a crane in the program, especially one given to wanderlust.
And there is another reason, one that would surely crush Romeo's ego, if he could hear what the humans are saying behind his lanky back.
He "is not genetically significant," Szyszkoski said. "There is a surplus of males in the population, (and) other males have had better success in finding females that stay."
For that reason, Romeo is also not a candidate for the captive breeding program, she said.
The Homosassa Springs park has offered to provide a permanent home for Romeo if officials determine that's what is best for him. The park houses animals for display and education, not breeding.
"They've spent a lot of time and money on this bird,'' Yerian noted, a point Szyszkoski echoed.
"I've been tracking him for a long time,'' she said. "It was a hard decision.''
Despite the trouble he has caused, Romeo's longing for Peepers has also impressed those dedicated to perpetuating the species.
"He must really love her,'' Szyszkoski said.