NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In the rice fields of Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Sara Zimorski uses a radio tracking device to hone in on a family of birds.
Zimorksi calls the pair their “superstar parents,” the first whooping cranes to successfully raise twin chicks since the endangered species was reintroduced to the wild in Louisiana in 2011.
"They're sometimes thought of as the poster child for the Endangered Species Act because at one point they almost went extinct," Zimorski said.
At one point, whooping crane numbers in the U.S. collapsed, down to just 21. In Louisiana, the birds vanished entirely by 1950.
At roughly 5 feet, the tallest bird in North America became a victim of poaching and habitat loss as wetlands converted to agriculture.
“Humans were a big part of why they disappeared, and so from my perspective and other people’s perspective, we should be part of helping to bring them back.”
Today, they number 66 in the wild in Louisiana, mostly birds brought from other states. However, five chicks hatched this year in the Southwestern part of the state.
“I walked out of the house and saw a bird eye-level with me, and I knew that was something different,” said landowner Barry Tietje, who first noticed the birds several years ago.
Tietje and nearby neighbors embrace the project and allow biologists access to their property.
“The whole community knows all about them now, and they watch for them and the treat them like pets around here,” Tietje said.
The crane reintroduction program, spearheaded out of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, recently shut down. That void has been filled by the Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans and the Dallas Zoo, which will raise chicks to be released into the wild.
“We have been asked to step up, and now, we are actually taking on another 18 birds here at this facility, which doubles what we have here currently,” said Audubon Assistant Curator Richard Dunn.
Zimorski notes there is a bit of irony to the bird’s recovery in Louisiana. Even though the loss of habitat contributed greatly to the cranes' demise, biologists have been surprised that the newly-released birds have taken to the rice fields.
“A rice field and a crawfish field are, essentially, managed as a shallow wetland, which is the preferred habitat of whooping cranes,” he said.
Together, the Louisiana coastal wetlands and farmland account for over one million acres of potential habitat, according the Wildlife and Fisheries.
Biologists face a number of challenges as they work to bring the whooping crane back from the brink of extinction, including the puzzling failure of some bird eggs in the nest.
"We do have other pairs who are producing fertile eggs, but the embryos are dying during incubation," Zimorksi said.
Biologists are conducting research to determine what is causing the failure and whether there is a solution.
An even more troubling concern is the continued threat from man.
“Twelve birds have been shot and killed by people, and that represents a significant portion of our mortality,” Zimorksi said.
Zimorski hopes public education, including the Louisiana whooping crane Facebook page, spreads the word about the program. Reaching a sustainable population in Louisiana would require about 130 birds, roughly double the numbers today.
“I would say cautiously optimistic at this point,” Zimorski said. “We’re really happy with how this year went.”