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Whooping cranes didn't so well in Florida. Next stop: Louisiana.

The whooping cranes that winter in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus and Hernando counties won't be affected by the proposal to move a Kissimmee flock of cranes to Louisiana. [International Crane Foundation]
The whooping cranes that winter in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus and Hernando counties won't be affected by the proposal to move a Kissimmee flock of cranes to Louisiana. [International Crane Foundation]
Published Mar. 8, 2018

If you have never seen a stately whooping crane in the wild in Florida, better hurry. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to transplant a bunch of them to Louisiana.

The whoopers — as they're sometimes called — live in a couple of different places in the state. The flock the federal agency is targeting lives in the Kissimmee Prairie area of Central Florida, around Leesburg. It numbers only 14, according to the agency.

The Kissimmee whoopers are part of a long-term experiment to spread the 5-foot-tall endangered birds into habitat they occupied decades ago. The cranes, named for their bugling cry audible up to 2 miles away, once filled the skies from Florida to the Rockies.

By 1941, though, their numbers had dwindled to only 21 birds. The cause: decades of unregulated hunting and the destruction of their marshy nesting grounds.

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The last reported sighting in Florida was in Osceola County in 1936 — unless you count the 1938 novel The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which mentions a cotillion of whooping cranes that leave the main character speechless with their elaborate mating dance.

In the '40s, the last remaining flock of cranes in North America migrated every year from the Gulf Coast of Texas to somewhere in the north of Canada to breed. Researches searched for their breeding ground for 14 years before finding it. That was the first step toward saving the species.

There are now about 600 whoopers in North America, some in captivity and others in the wild.

The ones in Kissimmee sprang from a flock that was raised in captivity in Wisconsin, then turned loose in Central Florida in the hope of reviving Florida's non-migratory whooping flocks. But out of 289 whooping cranes that were released there from 1993 to 2004, federal officials said just above a dozen birds remain.

Over the years the Kissimmee flock, which lives in Florida year-round, notched several achievements, including having one of them — nicknamed "Lucky" because it survived an eagle attack — become the first whooping crane chick to fledge in the United States since 1939.

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Award-winning author Peter Matthiessen visited the Kissimmee flock with state wildlife officials shortly after the whoopers' first egg hatched. He documented what he saw in his 2001 book, Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes. He described the prairie as "a vast marsh-and-savanna country of shallow lakes, palmetto scrub, fenced cattle range and game management areas with a dearth of human beings" — apparently ideal habitat for the whoopers.

Matthiessen also mentioned the "many thousands of dollars and decades of frustration and patience and hard work" it took to establish the Kissimmee flock, adding: "The time is past when large rare creatures can recover their numbers without man's strenuous intervention."

But despite those strenuous efforts, the Kissimmee flock has not done well since Matthiessen's visit. The Kissimmee whoopers have "experienced a high rate of mortality and low reproductive success related to habitat conditions, predation, and power line strikes," according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

New releases in that area ended in 2005, and the federal agency halted its research on this population in 2012.

Unless they're moved to join a flock in Louisiana that now numbers about 60, experts say those Florida cranes would likely just die out. The federal agency, which did not respond to requests for comment, is asking for public comment on the move.

Another flock, which also started out in captivity, still winters in Florida and numbers 103 birds and 26 breeding pairs. That flock was taught to migrate from Wisconsin by a team of volunteers from Operation Migration flying ultra-light planes to lead the whoopers to the right place.

Some of those cranes were taught to fly to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus and Hernando counties, and still migrate here each year. Others were led to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge near Tallahassee, the setting for the science fiction movie "Annihilation."

While that widely publicized effort ended in 2015, Operation Migration still tracks the birds and adds to those migratory population by releasing chicks in Wisconsin to follow adult birds to Florida. With help, the birds can fly to Florida, then return to the areas where they were hatched in Wisconsin.

They pair off, lay eggs, raise chicks. But living long enough to fly, "it's just one more hurdle,'' said Joe Duff of Operation Migration.

"There are no sex education or pre-natal classes for whooping cranes,'' he said. Only experience will teach the birds the skills they need to survive and "they have to learn that the hard way.''

The Chassahowitzka and St. Marks birds are not affected by the new federal proposal to relocate some whoopers. Only the ones in the Kissimmee Prairie would be captured and taken to Louisiana — where the last of the original whooper flock was seen in 1907.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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