Valdosta Daily Times

January 22, 2013

Ornithologists seek missing whooping crane near Hahira

Residents asked to make contact if bird, carcass is sighted

Jason Schaefer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Ornithologists across the eastern United States are seeking assistance from the public to find a missing whooping crane that disappeared from tracking data in the Hahira area in mid-December.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is requesting any information on the missing bird, catalogued under the number 3-07, which could be either dead or alive. The bird, a five-year-old male, bears a specific pattern of identification bands on its legs—a red band above green on its left leg, and red above green above white on its right.

Citizens who find the bird or its carcass are asked to not interfere with the bird or its remains, and to immediately report the sighting to either Davin Lopez (608) 266-0837, Billy Brooks (904) 731-3136, or Eva Szyszkoski (608) 477-0270. Reports of sightings can also be made online at www.fws.gov/midwest/whoopingcrane/sightings/sightingform.cfm.

Whooping cranes migrate from the northern U.S. to the south for winter each year, and often return to their same wintering grounds. It is unlikely that a single bird would go astray on its own, as they tend to flock together, according to Operation Migration spokesperson Liz Condie, but it is possible.

“It could have decided to go off somewhere, or it could have been predated,” Condie said. “It could have fallen ill and died. Without finding the bird alive or its carcass, there's no way of knowing what happened.”

Information about the bird, if it is found dead, is valuable to whooping crane preservation societies as they can identify key issues in the health of the population through the circumstances of bird deaths. If the bird fell to a predator, the carcass can identify which one; if the bird fell ill, a necropsy can identify the disease or parasite that caused the illness.

"If you have three or four birds who hang out together, likely the physical condition of one bird would be representative of its fellow travelers," Condie said. "The information on whooping cranes in the wild isn't a huge body of work; the more information we collect, the better."

Whooping cranes were driven to near extinction in the 1940s, and efforts to restore the U.S. population have brought numbers to about 600 birds, 450 of them wild. About 114 cranes exist in the eastern migratory population tracked by the WCEP.

The health of this bird population is not only an issue of good environmental stewardship, it is also imperative to the health of the environment in our region, according to Condie.

"If you pull one string on the tapestry, the whole picture starts to fall apart," Condie said. "Whooping cranes are a keystone species. Hundreds of other species rely on their well-being. Some would say, 'Oh, big deal,' but in nature, it is a big deal."

As is the case with the introduction of non-native species such as ladybugs to control aphids or pythons in the Everglades that have grown out of control, the complete loss of the cranes could upset the balance of the eastern U.S., leading to unpredictable consequences.

"Every time we impact nature, there's a cause and effect, and the effect is rarely ever a good one," Condie said.

In addition to their environmental value, the whooping crane is an impressive and majestic bird that would be a shame to lose, Condie said. The birds are about five feet tall with a wingspan extending between 7.5 and 8 feet, and sport snow-white plumage with a red patch on their heads. The cranes are the tallest bird in North America.