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Commentary by Cindy Ross
Last year was a banner year at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, the center of the small universe for the restoration of the whooping crane, a magnificent bird that stands 5 feet high and has a wingspan of 8 feet.
For more than 45 years, this facility in Howard County, Md., has been orchestrating the birds’ return; helping to increase its population from a measly 20 in 1941 to close to 400 worldwide. Fifty chicks were hatched last year, the offspring of 12 breeding pairs among the 70 captive cranes at the center.
But the hatching is only the beginning of a long, difficult process that ends with many of the young birds joining migrating flocks. Along the way, the chicks are reared by technicians who use puppets and dress in crane-like costumes to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans. It is work the technicians seem to love.
After all, what could be more fun than playing with puppets to teach the chicks to drink and eat, running around the ponds and meadows dressed in costumes and acting like whooping cranes so the young birds will follow and develop the strong leg and breast muscles they will need, or teaching them to swim? Or maybe the work’s real reward is its vital importance in bringing the species back from the edge of extinction.
Even before hatching, the birds are being attuned to the world they will move into. The sounds of the marshland, like the call of red-winged blackbirds, are played on a tape while the peeping chicks get ready to peck their way out of their shells. The sounds of the ultralight airplane that will eventually guide them to wild flocks are also played so the chicks are not scared when it comes time to chase the machine flown by a pilot dressed as a parent crane.
Once raised, some of these cranes stay behind at Patuxent for the genetic health of the flock. Others will be flown to join established, non-migratory flocks in the South. The remainder will follow the ultralight to join wild flocks for their travel to their breeding grounds in Northern Canada.
This year, instead of learning to fly behind an ultralight, some of the young birds will be released into the wild to find their own way south.
But the birds will be carefully watched. “Every whooping crane that leaves its home in Patuxent, wears a radio collar and all sorts of ‘jewelry,’” said supervisory biological technician, Jonathon Male.
The Patuxent whooping cranes are just starting to lay their eggs, with 10 so far and a total of 50 expected. “They won’t all be fertile, however,” Male explained. He anticipates approximately 20 chicks, in line with last year’s figures.
The population is coming back, but its recovery is so very slow. “They aren’t reproducing like they should be,” Male lamented. “We’re been working on this for 40 years and have tried many things to increase their numbers — adding ponds in their enclosed areas, for example, but it is a struggle.”
No one knows precisely why the whooping crane population collapsed. Loss of habitat is thought to be the prime reason for its demise, for they need a remote area of mixed forest and wetland to breed; croplands, mashes and submerged sandbars during migration; and bays and coastal marshes in the winter. When wetlands are drained for agriculture and development, it directly impacts the cranes during migration.
We’ve seen how easy it is to snuff out plant and animal species by destroying habitat and disrupting ecosystems. We witness how, when a species almost disappears from the planet, biologists and technicians all over the country work tirelessly to bring them back. There are 400 endangered species just in the United States, and more are added every year. In our region, the Atlantic sturgeon has just been added to the list and the river herring is under consideration. These species once had numbers so high, that “endangered” seemed impossible.
Because it is immensely difficult to bring back a species from the brink of extinction, we should work on making the planet a healthier place so more species don’t slip away. We can protect valuable wildlife habitat and work hard to conserve the landscapes that keep ecosystems intact.
Cindy Ross writes from Pennsylvania. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.