Heart of Louisiana: Whooping Cranes

The whooping crane is Louisiana’s largest and rarest bird, and after totally disappearing from the state in the 1950s, it is making a comeback.
Published: Jan. 23, 2022 at 2:08 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WAFB) - The whooping crane is Louisiana’s largest and rarest bird, and after totally disappearing from the state in the 1950s, it is making a comeback.

Whooping cranes have a call that can be heard two miles away and they are very big birds.

“They’re looking at about seven-foot wingspan for these guys,” said Richard Dunn with Audubon Species Survival Center. “They’re the tallest bird in North America. These guys average about 5-foot-2.”

Sixteen whooping cranes live at the Audubon Species Survival Center, which is tucked away in a wooded area on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans.

“They’re just big, majestic. They have a lot of individual personality, a lot of different behaviors when it comes to breeding or courtship,” explained Dunn.

Whooping cranes disappeared from Louisiana in the 1950s, and worldwide, the large white birds were on the brink of extinction.

“In the 50s, these guys were down in under 20 individuals total. So, they’ve made a huge comeback,” added Dunn.

Now, the North American whooping crane population has grown to 500 with 75 of those in Louisiana.

So, you brought the whooping cranes back 10 years ago?

“Mm-hmm,” replied Dunn.

And after that period of time, you still only have about 75 in the wild?

“Mm-hmm,” answered Dunn.

Why does it take such a long time to get the populations up?

“Ah, well, a lot of it is due to the bird’s biology. So, if these guys only reproduce two eggs a year per season, only one chick survives, it takes a while to get up,” responded Dunn.

Last year, the center in New Orleans hatched seven eggs. Human handlers wear white suits with puppet hands that are used to mimic the actions of adult cranes.

“You interact with a chick and you help to show the chick what it’s supposed to do, what it’s supposed to be wary of, what it’s supposed to eat,” said Dunn.

Four of those chicks were released into the wild at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation area in southwest Louisiana, a historic home for the birds.

“That was the last one in that area was the last one we had whopping cranes. It’s a nice natural wetland area down by the coast. It’s prime habitat. There’s a lot of food source there,” explained Dunn.

With funding help from Chevron, the young birds are fitted with transmitters, so their movements can be tracked.

“We don’t want to do this anymore. That’s our goal is not to be able to do this anymore, because the birds are doing fine on their own in the wild. So, I don’t think we’re quite there yet but we are well on our way,” added Dunn.

And the hope is that the cranes that stay at the center will continue growing that population, hatching eggs, and mentoring those chicks for their return to the coastal marsh.

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