Saturday, February 03, 2007

Catastrophic loss of 18 eastern Whooping Cranes

[Update: As has been reported in the media, one of the birds has been found alive, in the wild, in the company of two Sandhill Cranes]

The entire "Class of 2006" of the eastern Whooping Crane flock was killed in the recent storms in Florida.

Echoes of the past: in 1940, half of the remaining Whooping Cranes in the non-migratory population that once lived on the central Gulf Coast were killed in a single hurricane. This flock never recovered, and the non-migratory race has been extinct for many decades.

Though this is a terrible setback for the eastern Whooping Crane program, it underscores the critical importance of the project. This is a vivid demonstration of why we must avoid having all our cranes (or sparrows or woodpeckers or warblers or orchids or darters or...) in one basket. Establishing multiple populations in widely separated areas is absolutely essential.


At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A missing point here about the Whooping Cranes in Florida.

17 Whooping Cranes would of survived if they were not housed in cages/pens. The fault is not the weather but the people who decided to keep the cranes in a pen vs. allowing them to feed in the open fields. So of course they died, with high winds bouncing them of the pen walls, they had no chance of survival but I bet they would of survived the storms if they were a free flying group of cranes. I like how these people spinned the deaths on lightening strikes but rather than being bounced around to their deaths in their pens!


At 11:31 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

I pondered that same irony; I am refraining from second guessing their decisions on confinement. As I have learned myself in recent years from hard experience, animal care is full of difficult decisions and tradeoffs. This is especially true when you are working through the transition from captive-rearing to free-roaming in young animals. To use a farm analogy, if you let your chickens roost in your orchard trees, the owls will pick some of them off one-by-one. If you marshall them into a chicken house every evening, a weasel, feral dog, or your own cat might break in and slaughter your whole flock in one night. I've seen both happen.

In this case, confining the birds led to the loss of 17 out of 18 in the flock. But there is no way to know how many predator losses have been avoided over the past five years by confining the yearlings. Quite possibly if they were unconfined in Florida for their first winter even more birds would have been killed, one at a time, by coyotes, feral dogs, and other predators. There's no way to know for certain.

Bu perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. For instance (and I am just making this up as an example), maybe they need a system by which the birds can be released in an emergency. Maybe the pens need some weak-link in their construction so they will just sail or wash away in a severe storm, releasing the birds to fend for themselves in the elements rather than be drowned or beaten to death in their enclosure. Or maybe a keeper needs to be stationed at the enclosure site 24 hours a day to intervene in an emergency. I'm sure they will take a long look at their procedures and try to figure out how this could have been prevented while still safeguarding the naïve young birds from predators.


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