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Whooping crane's surprise visit thrills birders, then gives them pause

Word spread quickly among birders about a chance for a once-in-a-lifetime sighting.

A whooping crane, the tallest and one of the rarest birds in North America, was reportedly frequenting feeders at a house south of Brooksville last week.

More than a dozen members of the Hernando County Audubon Society, including Sheila Wollam, drove over to catch a glimpse of the bird — and found that this wildlife encounter wasn't all that wild.

"We came into the driveway and this bird walks right up to us,'' Wollam said. "It was like a tame crane.''

A great amount of human time and money has gone into making these birds wary of humans. Tame is the last thing they're supposed to be.

This male crane, No. 1207, was reared by scientists wearing crane suits and using crane hand puppets to show him how to eat and drink. Even the pilot of the ultralight aircraft that led it on his first migration to Florida in 2007 wore the suit.

"We try to avoid all human acclimation at all costs,'' said Joe Duff, chief operating officer of Operation Migration and the lead ultralight pilot.

It might seem slightly ridiculous, all this human intervention in pursuit of wildness, except for the results it has produced.

The population of wild whooping cranes, down to 15 by the 1940s, has climbed to 384, including 108 in the eastern migratory flock.

That's the group of birds trained to fly every year from one national wildlife refuge, the Necedah in Wisconsin, to others in Florida: either St. Marks near Tallahassee or the Chassahowitzka, which straddles western Hernando and Citrus counties.

No. 1207 is supposed to winter in the Chassahowitzka or other nearby wild areas, wading in freshwater swamps or tidal flats and feeding on crabs, insects and just about anything bite-sized that swims or crawls.

Instead, he has fallen in with a flock of sandhill cranes, which itself isn't a problem, and adopting their habit of wandering among humans in search of food, which is a problem.

You could compare Duff to a teacher watching a promising student smoke dope and hang around with a bad crowd, as long as you made it clear this was a very expensive, exclusive school. About $1.5 million annually goes into rearing the cranes, leading the 20 or so young ones on their first migration and monitoring the species' population.

"It's a great loss not only financially, but because of all the effort that went into the rearing of that bird,'' Duff said.

And just as there was probably an anti-role model in your neighborhood, the one kid who went completely off the rails, so it is with these nurtured cranes. No. 710, also part of the migratory class of 2007, started taking handouts at a mobile home park in northern Hernando last year.

After returning to Wisconsin last spring, he began feeding on corn stockpiled at an ethanol plant near the refuge. When he led other cranes there, Duff said, scientists had no choice but remove him from the wild. He now lives in Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo.

No. 1207 and the rest of the whooping cranes in Florida are due to migrate north in a week or two, Duff said.

Hopefully, the bird will become reaccustomed to foraging in the wild, and maybe, now that he's approaching the right age, find a mate. That is what makes these birds so valuable, the potential for them to raise young and teach them to feed and migrate so scientists in crane suits won't have to.

So, it may not be too late for this bird, though Duff and others I interviewed said the less contact the crane has with people, the better his chances, which is why I'm not revealing the location of the property the bird has been visiting or even the owner's name.

This man is a birder himself, and realizes that feeding even sandhill cranes — the common ones with the gray bodies and scarlet heads — is illegal in Florida. His feeders are for songbirds, he said, and the sandhills and whooping crane showed up about a week ago to probe the ground beneath them. He thinks they are eating insects that eat the grain.

But along with serious birders like Wollam, who know not to approach whooping cranes (he approached her, she said) at least one man tried to lure the crane to the fence with a handout, the property owner said. He knows all this attention is not good for a rare, wild bird.

So what should he do? First of all, stop refilling the feeders, Duff said.

Later, if this bird can't break the habit of eating human food, scientists might try to scare him back to the wild with a trained dog or with a worker dressed up in yet another suit, a supposedly terrifying "swamp monster'' costume.

Though the owner said the cranes weren't feeding directly on his birdseed, that's exactly what No. 1207 was doing when I saw him Sunday afternoon — craning his neck (nice to know where that word came from) to reach a feeder on a post.

Disappointing as this was to see from such a magnificent animal, the fact that I was watching the only bird on the continent tall enough to pull this off — one that towered over the sandhills like a center among point guards — was itself magnificent.

Even more so was watching this bird lift himself into flight when the flock moved on.

I kept my distance and, as a reporter, I think I had a legitimate reason to be there. But even if I hadn't, I'm a birder too, at least a casual one, and I would have found it hard to stay away.

Whooping crane's surprise visit thrills birders, then gives them pause 03/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 9:21pm]

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