SPRING HILL — The whooping crane known as 710 symbolizes what goes wrong when people feed wildlife.
The rare crane spent the winter in Spring Hill. But instead of foraging for food in the wild, he was nourished on bird feeders kept by nearby residents.
When 710 returned to Wisconsin in early spring, the bird again turned to humans.
He began to visit the ethanol plant five miles away from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, where truckloads of corn are delivered daily.
Wildlife officials tried to discourage him, but nothing worked.
When 710 boldly began pecking at the front door for food, they knew it was time. For the first time in Operation Migration's nine-year history, they pulled a whooping crane from the flock.
Too tame to live in the wild, the crane was returned to Florida this week, to live his life among humans, as an educational exhibit at Lowry Park Zoo.
"It doesn't take a lot to get wildlife to relax and begin to rely on man for his source of food," said Chuck Underwood, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman. "It's sad that it had to occur."
The story tugs hard at the sensibilities of the people who are trying to save these rare birds from extinction.
Wild whooping crane numbers dwindled to just 15 in the 1940s due to habitat loss and hunting. Currently, there are 314 wild whooping cranes in the United States and Canada, including 78 in the eastern migratory flock.
• • •
From the moment their little beaks peck a tiny hole in the egg, great pains are taken to shield the whooping cranes from humans.
No human voice is ever heard. No human paraphernalia is ever seen. No human form is even seen.
Caretakers wear crane costumes as they nurture the rare birds. They show them how to eat and drink using puppets. They socialize them, and ultimately they teach them to follow an ultralight aircraft on the 1,200-mile journey from Wisconsin to their wintering grounds at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles Hernando and Citrus counties.
"We try to make all things human unnatural to them,'' said Joe Duff, a founder of Operation Migration, the organization that trains and leads the eastern flock to Florida. "Our hope is that when they see humans, their natural fear of the unknown will kick in.''
When trackers found out that 710 was visiting area bird feeders in Spring Hill several months ago, they stepped in and asked residents to put the feeders away until the flock left. All but one resident agreed, he said.
Duff didn't want to identify the individual or even the neighborhood. He doesn't want people to try to go there to see the birds. What he wants, he said, is to get the message out that people need to stay away from the birds, rather than point fingers.
• • •
Crane 710 followed the ultralight to Florida in 2007.
It only takes one one-way trip, and the cranes then migrate from Wisconsin to Florida on their own year after year. The success of the so-called "Class of 2007'' was especially important because a storm and predation wiped out all 18 birds that had constituted the previous year's class.
Not only did 710's comfort level with humans put him at risk, but he also posed a risk to humans.
The tallest birds in North America, whooping cranes stand 5 feet tall and have a sharp beak and claws.
"Cranes can be dangerous,'' Underwood said. "It's a great thing to have cranes, but cranes need to be viewed from afar.''
In Florida, it is illegal to feed sandhill cranes, bears, foxes, raccoons, alligators and pelicans. Sandhill cranes are known to cause serious damage in neighborhoods, where they have taken up residence because they are being fed.
Wildlife that acclimates to people can create a nuisance and oftentimes, the creatures must be trapped and killed because there is no place to house them and relocation doesn't work, said Gary Morse, a state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman.
"Most nuisance behavior is because of an opportunity created by people either intentionally or inadvertently,'' Morse said. "Feeding wildlife is not an answer to a problem. It's a gateway to a problem.''
"Wild is wild and when you mix wildlife with people, the wildlife loses every time,'' he said.
Duff summarized the tale of 710 in a message on the Operation Migration Web site, "After the extreme measures it took to get 710 into the wild and after completing two round-trips to Florida and back on his own, it seems a shame that he will never fly again.
"But maybe his fate will reinforce our message that kindness kills wildness and whooping cranes need a place of their own.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.