Rare birds cared for by rarer people

Whooping cranes pampered, coaxed to breed near Laurel

April 12, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

Black sky. Blue lightning. White birds - white as the nearly two feet of snow that fell on the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center that night, the flakes as big as feathers.

The worst part of the storm hit after sunset, a scene ripped from an ornithologist's nightmare. Layers of ice and snow settled on the mesh roofs of more than a hundred whooping crane pens, which, as hours passed, began to droop and tear.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Page 1A yesterday about the endangered whooping crane population erroneously called the birds the rarest in the world. They are one of the rarest, but other species are rarer.
The Sun regrets the error.

Then, as though in answer to the eerie lightning, thunder: the sound of nets collapsing, one after another, and of tons of snow dumping on the heads of the rarest birds in the world. Many of the 5-foot-tall cranes were trapped in frozen tunnels; others flapped away into the night.

Their deafening calls - a blend of honk and war whoop - hung in the air, mingling with the equally frantic cries of humans.

"I've got birds loose!" screamed the crane keepers, scattered over several acres of Laurel wilderness. Outfitted in coveralls and racquetball goggles, nine people blundered, half-blind in the near-blizzard conditions, swinging brooms to knock snow off the remaining nets.

As it turned out, everyone survived that wild Feb. 11 night - which, given the whoopers' unhappy history, is something of a miracle. These birds have a knack for crashing into power lines, swallowing fishhooks, tempting bobcats and, naturally, crossing paths with humans, who for several centuries shot them out of the sky for their tail feathers, or just for the heck of it.

That's part of the reason that, after decades of captive breeding programs such as Patuxent's, there are only about 425 whooping cranes left on the planet, roughly 50 of them at the refuge.

But - even after the escapees were caught, scooped up in over-sized butterfly nets or herded into hedgerows - the local flock wasn't out of the woods. The snowstorm hit smack in the middle of mating season; the keepers feared that many of the whoopers (which are extraordinarily finicky breeders, an evolutionary strike two) might be too traumatized to procreate. If so, Patuxent would lose its annual yield of 20 or so chicks that go to populate the sparse wild crane flocks. Crane project funding was also at stake.

So this Easter season the crane crew has been on an egg hunt of the most serious sort: the quest for the first whooping crane egg.

Bugling birds

In the remotest reaches of Patuxent's 13,000 protected acres, in grassy pens so big they're almost paddocks, prance creatures rarer than giant pandas. The tallest birds in North America, the whoopers are at once comic and majestic, pure white except for a cap of red, warty skin and some black and crimson war paint around the eyes. Their wings span seven feet. Their bugling can be heard for miles.

They are the sole remaining endangered species being bred at Patuxent, a federal research facility that once worked to save such rarities as the Andean condor and the masked bob white quail, and that is widely credited with restoring the nation's bald eagle population.

The whoopers are perhaps an even greater challenge, "the endangered species equivalent of putting a man on the moon," said Kathleen O'Malley, the longest-serving member of the crane staff. Every chick is cherished.

But for creatures that, in the wild, swoop from sub-arctic climates to sub-tropical ones, whoopers are surprisingly poor adapters. It's not uncommon for cranes that have been jostled in some way to miss a breeding cycle. In the mid-1980s, when the Patuxent pens' chicken wire fencing was exchanged for chain link, the disturbed birds didn't lay a single viable egg.

"It was incredibly depressing," said O'Malley, who is in charge of the chicks. "And it will be incredibly depressing if we don't get any this year."

It's not just that the baby whoopers that emerge from the eggs are cute, although they are (imagine a blue-eyed Easter chick on stilts). It's that the eggs encapsulate decades of human labor and the story of what people have ventured and sacrificed over a half-century for the cranes' sake.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when there were fewer than 30 of these gangly, beguiling birds on Earth, Canadian and U.S. biologists joined forces to find the last whooping crane breeding grounds, a process that took 10 years and some hardcore bushwhacking in Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park, where the nests finally were found.

Then, in the 1960s, scientists helicoptered into that lonely corner of the Northwest Territories and took fist-sized eggs from their nests of grass and cattails to start a captive breeding program in Maryland that is now run by the U.S. Geological Survey. The goal was to produce a steady stream of chicks for reintroduction into the wild.

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