Saturday, February 3, 2007, 5:52 am

By JAMES A. CARLSON Associated Press

Central Florida storms kill flock of endangered whooping cranes

MILWAUKEE -- All 18 endangered young whooping cranes that were led south 
from Wisconsin last fall as part of a project to create a second 
migratory flock of the birds were killed in storms in Florida, a 
spokesman said.

The cranes were being kept in an enclosure at the Chassahowitzka 
National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, Fla., when violent storms 
moved in Thursday night, said Joe Duff, co-founder of Operation 
Migration, the organization coordinating the project.

"The birds were checked in late afternoon the day before, and they were 
fine," he said Friday.

The area of the enclosure was unreachable by workers at night, and all 
the birds were found dead, Duff said. He speculated that a strong storm 
surge drew the tide in and overwhelmed the birds. The official cause of 
the deaths was not immediately known, but he said it may have been drowning.

The thunderstorms and at least one tornado that hit central Florida 
caused widespread damage and killed at least 19 people.

For the past six years, whooping cranes hatched in captivity have been 
raised at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin by 
workers who wear crane-like costumes to keep the birds wary of humans.

Ultralight aircraft are used to teach new groups of young cranes the 
migration route to Florida. From then on, the birds migrate north in the 
spring and south in the fall on their own.

Duff described the loss as an "unavoidable disaster" for the whooping 
cranes project that ironically followed a milestone.

For the first time in six years, an entire group of young birds reared 
at the Necedah refuge had made it to the Florida refuge without the loss 
of a single crane.

The project's previous losses all involved individual birds killed by 
predators or fatally injured in accidents.

"It's a fluke. It's an unforeseen thing," Duff said. "So many birds and 
they were such good birds. It was our hardest migration and our most 
difficult one to fund."

The various groups and agencies working on the project had seen the size 
of the flock grow to 81 birds with the latest arrivals, but the loss of 
the young cranes drops the total back to 63, and there may have been 
additional losses.

Duff said there was no way of knowing whether other whooping cranes that 
winter in the area had survived the storm.

Operation Migration is part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. 
Partnership officials and Duff said the work would continue.

Members of the whooping crane recovery team were meeting in Louisiana 
when the Florida storm occurred, going over the past year's progress and 
setting goals for this year, when they learned what had happened, Duff said.

After the initial shock, "it just reinforced the support and 
determination to get this done," he said.

The whooping crane, the tallest bird in North America, was near 
extinction in 1941, with only about 20 left.

The other wild whooping crane flock in North America has about 200 birds 
and migrates from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migratory flock 
in Florida has about 60 birds.

Murray Gardler
9400 Merriweather Drive
Brooksvile, FL 34613-4271

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