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Cranes return to nest near busy roads

Published Oct. 6, 2005

(ran NS, S editions of Tampa Bay & State and LA edition of LT)

The renegade Tampa Road sandhill cranes are at it again.

For the past few years, a determined pair of sandhill cranes has tried to raise a family in a man-made marsh near the highly developed, busy intersection of Tampa and East Lake roads.

They've had four babies; all have been killed after wandering into the busy intersection.

Then, last spring, the male crane was killed by a passing car. Experts thought the female would search out a new mate and move to a safer area, a practice typical to the species.

Wrong. Last weekend, with a new mate she brought to the area, the couple hatched two fluffy chicks _ which biologists expect will die long before reaching adulthood.

"It's inevitable what's going to happen," said Rick Chaboudy, director of the Humane Society of North Pinellas. "The babies are going to get hit by cars."

The babies might have to get stronger to venture that far. On Tuesday, just days old, they struggled with standing, let alone walking. Up and down tottered the young cranes, which have the same golden plumage as baby chickens, but are a bit larger.

It appeared that the only thing on the parents' minds was nurturing the two and getting them fed: As one parent ventured away from the nest for insects or roots, the other pressed its beak to the babies' with the food that had been collected.

The fate of the cranes has spurred a debate among bird lovers and biologists who wish they had never settled near the McMullen-Booth interchange, which is home to a medical complex and the sprawling Shoppes of Boot Ranch, not to mention intense commuter traffic.

Many people who live and work near the birds' nest have pleaded to have them relocated for their own good.

Paula Soyke and her colleagues at Associates in Birth and Gynecology have watched the family grow, and diminish, over the years.

"We'd like to keep them and be able to enjoy them," said Soyke, a registered nurse. "We know what's going to happen. . . . We don't want to get attached to the babies."

But officials with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission say the birds can't be moved _ even though death by automobile is becoming the single greatest threat for the species.

"Even if you move them 200 miles away, they can find their way back," said Steve Nesbitt, a biological administrator with the commission and a specialist in sandhill cranes.

"We've tried it and it doesn't work. They're smarter than us."

Apparently, the cranes' intellect doesn't defer to automobiles. Since moving to the suburban Palm Harbor location, they've become accustomed to the cars and noise of their surroundings.

"To them, a car is nothing but another potential predator . . . Their intuition is not like ours," Nesbitt said.

The sandhill cranes stand 4 feet tall with red plumage on the tops of their heads and long, strong beaks. Their babies are fuzzy chicks that stand on one foot like the parents.

Although the birds are excellent fliers, they prefer to walk _ putting them in greater danger on Tampa Road.

The cranes are a tradition-bound species that rarely abandons an area with ample food and protection, like the Tampa Road marsh, Nesbitt said, even if the babies they're working to protect continue to die.

"Their long-term goal is not successful reproduction, but opportunities to reproduce."

For a threatened species, that goal is important. The resident Florida sandhill cranes number anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000. If they continue to decrease, the species could become endangered.

Experts say that in rapidly growing Florida, birds like the sandhill crane have had no choice but to adapt to unnatural surroundings. In the Tampa Road case, that has meant nesting near business and apartment complexes full of people eager to feed the birds.

"I think there's certain cases where it's been carried to an extreme. The humans with good intentions have tamed them down too much," said Claire Mariande, curator of birds at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis.

After cranes pecked on some windows seeking food, the neighbors' generosity has tapered off. But that hasn't deterred the pair from calling the unlikely area home.

"The important message here is that the cranes are telling us, "We have nowhere else to go.'

" said the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission's Nancy Joiner. "People have moved into the cranes' habitat. The price we pay is the death of those animals."