The most popular chick in Hernando Beach died young.
A loving community along Shoal Line Boulevard had watched her eat, grow and pose for pictures until a hit-and-run accident early Tuesday morning ended her life.
"The folks out there are just devastated," said County Commission chairman David Russell. "They really loved her."
The death of the 6-week-old sandhill crane chick came just days after the Department of Public Works installed Hernando County's first "crane crossing" signs to protect the very same chick from oncoming traffic.
Russell pitched the idea of a "crane crossing" sign to the County Commission on June 22 after seeing the chick outside Brian's Place during dinner and hearing concerns about fast traffic nearby.
"They're living on a stretch of road that people travel pretty quickly on," Russell said just before the accident. "It might be prudent to at least alert folks to the fact that they're there."
Public Works painted and installed two "crane crossing" signs within a week, said Brian's Place owner Brian Alvarez.
The yellow diamond-shaped signs show a smaller crane following a larger crane, and the distinctive swoop of the necks are visible to passing cars.
Similar signs have been installed for bears and other wildlife, but these were the county's first signs for cranes.
Russell said the signs probably hadn't been up long enough to make a difference.
Leslie Tomlinson, a Brian's Place waitress, said the crane parents didn't make much noise. But Tuesday was an exception.
"The parents were squawking like crazy, and when we went out there, they were standing over the body of their little chick," Tomlinson said. "I was in tears all morning."
Alvarez said before the chick's death, patrons took photos of the crane family and watched for them every day. The cranes usually loitered near the restaurant from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Saturday.
The chick isn't the first the area has had: Two years ago, another chick was injured in a car accident, but it survived.
Tomlinson said bird sanctuary workers drove that baby bird to Sarasota, where it recovered.
Tomlinson called this year's chick the "red-headed step-child," because she said the bird's raggedy reddish plume made her look like "a little orphan bird."
"We loved having it around," Tomlinson said. "And we hope we'll see another chick soon."
Laura J. Nelson can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.