Five whooping crane chicks have hatched and fledged this summer in southwest Louisiana, marking a major milestone in the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries whooping crane reintroduction project. The five chicks are the most to hatch in one year in the nascent project, which launched in 2011, according to a press release from the Department.
The first chicks hatched in 2016 with one chick fledging, followed by three chicks hatching in 2017, also with a single fledgling surviving.
“This year was a big step forward and we’re excited and pleased,’’ said Sara Zimorski, an LDWF biologist with the whooping crane reintroduction project. “To see young birds producing their own fertile eggs and to be successful in raising a chick is a sure sign of progress. To have five chicks this year only two years after we had the first chick hatching, it’s a pretty significant jump. We hope we’ll continue to see improvement as we have more pairs that mature and start to breed.’’
According to the release, Louisiana’s whooping crane reintroduction project began in 2011 when 10 whooping cranes from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center were released at the White Lake Wetlands Conservations Area in Vermilion Parish to develop the non-migratory flock. This marked a significant conservation milestone with the first wild whooping cranes in Louisiana since 1950. Each year since, more whooping cranes have been added to the initial flock and the current population is 66 (61 adults plus the five chicks hatched earlier this spring).
Whooping cranes are slow to mature and only lay one to two eggs during the spring. So reproduction can be a slow process. The cranes normally don’t reach sexual maturity until 3-5 years old and the cranes, when introduced into Louisiana, have been less than 1-year-old.
“A 3-year-old laying eggs or hatching a chick isn’t always successful the first time,’’ Zimorski said. “Sometimes it takes several years. This year, some pairs were successful the first go-around. That was great to see. Additionally, we had some younger members of pairs that were successful in raising these chicks. Of these pairs that successfully raised chicks two of the males were only 2 years old, which is on the young side. It’s really encouraging to see young birds starting to reproduce actually being successful.’’
The cranes were hatched in late April and early May. They grow fast, about an inch a day and by the time they’re three months old, they stand from 4.5 to 5 feet tall.
“The reason they grow so fast is so they can evade predators,’’ Zimorski said. “They’re vulnerable until they’ve fledged so the parents care for them and protect them. Typically, whooping crane chicks will remain with their parents for around 10 months.’’
All five chicks were hatched on private lands in southwest Louisiana, in crawfish fields. Zimorski said the cooperation of private landowners and farmers is vital to the success of the project.
“The birds really like this habitat and they’ll continue to use it,’’ Zimorski said. “So our ongoing partnership with these landowners and farmers is very important and we thank them for their support.’’
Anyone encountering a whooping crane is advised to observe the bird from a distance and to report the sighting to LDWF. Whooping cranes are large-bodied, white birds with a red head and black facial markings. Birds measure a height of five feet and have a wingspan of seven to eight feet that makes them very distinctive. In flight, whooping cranes display black wing tips, a fully extended neck and legs which extend well beyond the tail.
Anyone witnessing suspicious activity involving whooping cranes is advised to call the LDWF’s Enforcement Division at 1-800-442-2511 or use the tip411 program, which may offer a cash reward for information leading to arrests or convictions. To use the tip411 program, citizens can text LADWF and their tip to 847411 or download the “LADWF Tips” iPhone app from the Apple iTunes store free of charge. Citizen Observer, the tip411 provider, uses technology that removes all identifying information before LDWF receives the text so that LDWF cannot identify the sender.