Maryland Journal

Costumes, puppets help Laurel wildlife center keep continent's largest cranes in the air and on the move

Preserving the whoop

May 07, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

LAUREL -- Grass goes uncut, voices are library-soft, and people walk softly when whooping cranes are hatching.

Life is stirring again at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, the center of the universe for those trying to restore the endangered bird. One egg hatched two weeks ago. Another one last week. Four more last weekend. By the end of the month, there should be nearly two dozen chicks, members of an exclusive club that numbers fewer than 500.

"The whole year of work is to get to this point," says Sharon Marroulis, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

This spring that work has a new sense of urgency: Just three months ago, a brutal storm at a Florida refuge killed all but one of the 18 fledglings in the Class of 2006, wiping out a generation and narrowing the genetic pool.

The deaths were a gut punch to the technicians, biologists and volunteers at Patuxent. Eyes still well with tears and voices quaver when the birds are mentioned. They aren't supposed to get attached, but they do. The chicks and the adult birds get nicknames from a staff that fusses over them day and night.

While still in their shells, the chicks are serenaded by tapes of purring adult birds and the roar of the engine of an ultralight plane that will lead their first migratory flight to their new home.

Human contact with the baby birds is limited. Strict chick protocol dictates that the humans look as much like whooper adults as possible when they interact. So workers cover themselves in a uniform of big white suits, peaked hats and black boots.

Puppets that look like adult birds are placed in the incubator and dangle over their wire cages to give the chicks a better sense of who they are.

"We're doing the best we can with the costume and puppets, but we want them to imprint on adult cranes," Marroulis says. "The chicks recognize the differences in sounds and the differences in height and shoes."

The biologists even try to give the baby whoopers "little buddies," sandhill crane chicks about the same age.

The whooper chicks will spend a little more than two months here. This summer, they'll be placed in crates and flown to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, where they'll be taught to fly behind an ultralight plane. Then, come fall, the plane will lead them south on a 1,200-mile flight to Florida's Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, an isolated marsh north of Tampa, where they'll spend their winters.

"We only show them one-way, and they find their way back to Wisconsin," says Barbara Clauss, another Patuxent biologist.

The good shepherds are part of Operation Migration, a group that gained fame for being the first to lead birds south with an ultralight, the basis for the movie Fly Away Home. Now they work with cranes.

"When you see them fly, you can't help but be moved. It's not something you can walk away from," says chief operating officer Liz Condie.

The adults produce a haunting whoop as they call to each other or announce their territory. Pairs perform a courtship dance that is both graceful and goofy, with leaps into the air, head bobbing and the flapping of their massive wings.

If the whoopers - North America's tallest birds - seem as rare and fragile as Faberge eggs, it's because they are.

North America is home to two of the world's 15 species of cranes: whooping cranes and smaller sandhill cranes. In the 1800s, the population of whoopers was estimated to be 1,500. But hunting and habitat loss reduced the population until a 1941 census could find just 15 birds.

Small conservation efforts began in the late 1950s, but it wasn't until whoopers were placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1970 and its Canadian equivalent in 1978 that the push to save the cranes gathered steam.

The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, a partnership of 10 Canadian and U.S. experts, was formed in 1995 to write the game plan to restore population and protect its habitat. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership was established in 1999 to be an umbrella for government and nonprofit groups dedicated to the restoration of the species.

Now the eastern migratory flock has 63 cranes. A nonmigratory flock near Kissimmee, Fla., numbers 54, and a naturally migrating flock of 237 birds travels from Canada to Texas each year.

Seven years ago, wild whooping crane chicks hatched in Florida for the first time in 60 years, but the young birds were killed by predators.

So the responsibility falls to breeding centers such as Patuxent, which hatches two-thirds of all the chick eggs in North America. Olive-colored eggs with dark blotches arrive from zoos in San Antonio, Texas, and Calgary, Alberta. Patuxent also has home-grown eggs from 12 breeding pairs that are part of the flock of 225 whoopers and sandhill cranes on site.

The whoopers may lay the eggs, but sandhills, chosen for their parenting abilities, keep them warm during most of the 28-day incubation period. For the final few days, the eggs are placed in incubators.

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