BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Perennially endangered and for decades absent from these marshy wetlands, Louisiana’s whooping cranes can add another milestone to their long journey back from the brink of extinction: They survived 2020.
Fewer than 700 whooping cranes exist in the wild in North America, 74 of which belong to a non-migratory population that nests in southwest Louisiana, according to the state.
Once numbering above 10,000 nationwide, habitat loss and hunting left fewer than 40 whooping cranes alive by 1947. In Louisiana, where a native flock had long resided year round, only one remained. After that lone crane was relocated to Texas in 1950 in an effort to keep the species alive, the Bayou State was devoid of native whooping cranes until the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries began its current repopulation effort and released 10 captivity-raised cranes in 2011, said LDWF wildlife biologist Sara Zimorski.
But last year’s pandemic and a historic hurricane season created a challenging year for Louisiana’s newly formed flock of “whoopers” and those fighting to preserve them.
“Last year, for so many reasons, was crazy and a bit disappointing,” Zimorski said. “Still, to have a year like last year and not have a loss of population is a huge positive.”
MATING SEASON INTERRUPTED
Spring marks the beginning of mating season for whooping cranes, which engage in an elaborate dance to court their partners. But last year, mating season coincided with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mandated lockdowns to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 shuttered captive breeding centers such as Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center. Ordinarily the center aims to hatch six whooping cranes raise 12 from eggs found abandoned in the wild each year, said Richard Dunn, the center’s assistant curator.
But staff cuts and social distancing meant artificial insemination of whooping cranes — a breeding technique for injured birds that requires two to three people — could not occur. And travel restrictions meant eggs abandoned in the wild could not be transported to the center to be hatched.
In normal years, the seven captive breeding centers in North America can be expected to hatch approximately 30 whooping cranes, Dunn said. In 2020, only one was hatched.
For the first time since the Louisiana repopulation effort began, no new cranes were introduced into the state’s wetlands.
“It was a scary, unsure time last year,” Dunn said. “The pandemic effectively put a kibosh on our breeding programs, and that’s across North America.”
IMPACT OF HISTORIC HURRICANE SEASON
With centers unable to breed or release more whooping cranes, the survival of the wild population in southwest Louisiana became more critical. That survival was threatened by a hurricane season that saw five storms make landfall in Louisiana. Two of the more devastating ones, hurricanes Laura and Delta, wreaked havoc on southwest Louisiana where the whooping cranes are known to nest.
And yet, Zimorski and her team found they did not lose a single bird. Transmitter data showed the whooping cranes did not move at all before or during the storms. True to 2020, they survived by sheltering in place.
“It seems they probably hunkered down, lowered themselves, faced into the wind and rode it out,” Zimorski said. “Although those storms were devastating, the whooping cranes came through just fine, which is pretty amazing.”
Everything about whooping cranes seems designed to maintain the species’ rarity.
They are slow to reach sexual maturity and only lay, on average, two eggs per nest. Whoopers also don’t make the best parents, Zimorski said. Often only one of the two eggs develops into a fledgling crane. Adult whooping cranes have a 7-foot wingspan but can be flightless and vulnerable for six weeks during molting season. Even when able to fly, their short back toes prevent them from perching atop trees to evade predators.
“In lots of ways they are very fragile, and there are lots of things that are like, ‘Ah no wonder you almost went extinct,’” Zimorski said. “One chick a year is not a great way to grow your population.”
That slow, delicate path to propagation made the circumstances of the past year all the more dire, Dunn said. Any lulls in releases can create what he called boom or bust cycles that “aren’t good for the species.”
“So if you get a big gap and then all the sudden a natural disaster happens and you lose half your population due to a drought or hurricane, that really affects your population,” Dunn said.
Each year, the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center aims to hatch six whooping cranes and raise 12 from eggs found abandoned in the wild. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, they hatched no eggs in 2020.
But a year after the pandemic, Dunn and Zimorski are hopeful about the Louisiana whooping cranes.
FINDING A WAY TO SURVIVE
At the Species Survival Center, Dunn is beginning to see cranes dance again.
“Our pairs are out courtship dancing right now and investigating nest sites so we’re hoping we have some eggs soon,” Dunn said. “I think we’re in a pretty good spot to make a push for birds this year.”
Eventually the LDWF wants to see a self-sustaining population of whooping cranes, defined as 120 birds and 30 productive pairs.
While much work remains until they reach that goal, Zimorski and her team are encouraged by their findings from a nest survey conducted in late March.
They found that more of the younger wild whoopers are beginning to pair up and breed for the first time. One nest hatched both of its eggs. Some eggs failed to hatch — an issue biologists are working to solve. But seeing more of the birds attempt to nest is “critical” for the species’ growth, Zimorski said.
And if she learned anything about whooping cranes, it’s that the birds will find ways to survive.
“We still have them, and a lot of that is due to hard work by people,” Zimorski said. “But some of that was just due to some persistent birds that survived.”