Advertisement
  1. News

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.

EPILOGUE: Snooty, 69, a breed apart from other manatees (w/video)

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.

FROM 2017: Three decades of panther capture-and-collar program may come to an end

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, left, and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody were appointed to the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice by Attorney General Bob Barr. [Tampa Bay Times]
    Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody will also join a commission that will “explore modern issues affecting law enforcement," according to the Department of Justice.
  2. Clockwise from left: Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites, Piña Colada Candy Apple, Candy Corn and Cheeseburger-On-A-Stick [Courtesy of the Florida State Fair]
    Cheesy Sriracha Funnel Cake Bites, Piña Colada Candy Apples and more are coming to the Florida State Fair.
  3. Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputy Alton Smith helps recover items Wednesday from Lake Twitt in Odessa during a dive team practice. Divers used the drill to search for evidence of a forgotten African American cemetery nearby. [CHRIS URSO   |  Times]
    Keystone Memorial Cemetery was established by a freed slave and disappeared in the 1950s. The dive team chose Lake Twitt to do its monthly practice.
  4. In this Aug. 28, 2013, file photo, Joseph Maldonado answers a question during an interview at the zoo he runs in Wynnewood, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File) [SUE OGROCKI  |  AP]
    A federal judge sentenced Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage to 22 years in prison for trying to arrange the killing of Carole Baskin.
  5. St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, left, and U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez announce the creation of the regional Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    A six-county task force from Hernando to Polk to Sarasota will band together thanks to a $742,000 Justice Department grant.
  6. In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday. (Senate Television via AP) [AP]
    After late-night deliberations over the rules almost ensured no new witnesses will be heard, the trial picked up speed
  7. More than 44 percent of people who searched on ApartmentList.com for the Tampa Bay area from June to December were outside the region, according to a report from Apartment List. Percentages in the “Top Three Sources” box represent the share of searches coming from outside the metro area. (Apartment List map) [Apartment List]
    The region trails only Denver, Baltimore and San Diego for the percentage of people from outside the area searching for apartments on Apartment List.
  8. To accommodate the swelling numbers of aging baby boomers, experts say we will need to make transportation more readily available, build more affordable housing, modify homes and apartments to help seniors age in place, and create programs to bring young and old people together. [Times (2011)]
    “There’s never been a time like this,” one expert says. Solutions include more health aides, taming long-term care costs and just healthier living.
  9. The northbound lanes of I-275 were closed for more than four hours early Tuesday morning as troopers investigated a deadly crash. [Florida Highway Patrol]
    Police pulled over their vehicle for driving the wrong way on Fifth Avenue S, but the driver took off and crashed shortly after.
  10. Facebook user Cornelius King posted this warning on November 19, 2019. Hillsborough County Sheriff says it is a hoax, but the viral message continues to spread online. [Facebook screenshot]
    A viral post encourages Florida drivers to run over people they see in the street to avoid being attacked.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement