The COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center’s ability to bring back the world’s rarest crane species. Now, over a year since the pandemic began, Audubon is making a major comeback raising cranes with seven whooping crane chicks currently being reared at its Species Survival Center.
Five abandoned eggs originated from the eastern migratory population in Wisconsin, one egg from the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, and one egg was the result of artificial insemination at the Species Survival Center.
Six of the chicks are being costume-reared by Audubon staff, while one chick is being parent-reared by its mother and “stepfather,” as this chick was produced via artificial insemination. Audubon staff costume-rear chicks by dressing up as whooping cranes, keeping their true human appearance cloaked in order to ensure they do not desensitize the chicks to humans. During costume-rearing the chicks are taught how to be whooping cranes by using a whooping crane head puppet to demonstrate searching for food, looking out for predators, etc.
“We are thrilled to have bounced back in the wake of the pandemic,” said Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center Assistant Curator Richard Dunn. “These chicks represent the collaborative effort that we and our partners share in making an impact on the survival on this precious species.”
The whooping crane chicks will stay at Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center until the fall, when they will be released into the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. There they will be taken to a temporary release pen to stay for approximately two weeks before being released into the wild.
There are currently 78 whooping cranes in the wild in Louisiana. Whooping cranes have been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered, and Audubon is one of only seven whooping crane breeding facilities in North America.
This year, Hancock Whitney Zoo-To-Do, Audubon’s annual fundraising event, will celebrate whooping cranes, continuing Hancock Whitney’s role in supporting Audubon’s wildlife conservation efforts. For more information on supporting these efforts, visit zootodo.org.
“Hancock Whitney is proud to partner with Audubon to support whooping crane conservation efforts,” said Hancock Whitney Senior Regional President Gary Lorio. “The team at Audubon does amazing work to preserve these creatures and we are looking forward to returning these chicks to the wild off the coast of Louisiana in the fall.”
The Louisiana wild whooping crane flock was established in 2011 when 10 cranes from the U. S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland were released to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish. This marked a significant conservation milestone with the first wild whooping cranes in Louisiana since 1950. In 2016, the first chicks hatched in the Louisiana wild since 1939—a significant sign of recovery for the species.
This year’s chicks were named after “natural phenomena” including: Blizzard, Fog, Hurricane, Lava, Lightning, Tornado, and Aurora.
Along with whooping cranes, Audubon has also seen success this year with Mississippi sandhill crane births, with eight chicks hatched. These births help bolster the population of this North American crane subspecies and add to the more than 200 chicks produced at the Survival Center. With most of the chicks being released back into the wild, the goal of the recovery program is to create a self-sustaining population of Mississippi sandhill cranes.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), and Audubon have been longtime leaders in whooping crane conservation and are continuing to expand their partnership with the goal of developing a self-sustaining Louisiana whooping crane population. This partnership is an example of the importance of collaboration between federal and state agencies and non-profit organizations, leveraging the strengths of all to achieve measurable conservation results and make a significant, historic impact on the future of this species. Through this partnership and with the support of USFWS, Chevron, and other generous supporters, Audubon is committed to the long-term growth and stability of the whooping crane population to save the species from extinction.
As part of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, Audubon works collaboratively with the USFWS, International Recovery Team, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Whooping Crane Species Survival Plan, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, International Crane Foundation, White Oak Conservation Foundation, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Dallas Zoo, San Antonio Zoo, Calgary Zoo, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to achieve a self-sustaining population of wild whooping cranes through reintroduction programs.
Anyone encountering a whooping crane is advised to observe the bird from a distance and to report the sighting to LDWF https://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/page/report-a-whooping-crane-sighting-or-violation. Whooping cranes are large-bodied, long legged, white birds with a red head and black facial markings on the side of its face. Birds measure a height of five feet and a wingspan of seven to eight feet, which makes them very distinctive. In flight, whooping cranes display black wing tips, a fully extended neck, and legs that extend well beyond the tail.