The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is heralding the five whooping crane chicks that hatched and survived to leave the nest this year as a tremendous step for the reintroduction of the once-native birds to the state.
The five new fledglings, which will grow to be 5 five feet tall, with bright white feathers and an eye-catching wingspan of 7 feet to eight feet wide and brings the total number of whooping cranes in the state to 66, according to the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Until reintroduction efforts began in Louisiana in 2011, there had not been a single whooping crane in the state since 1950, said Sara Zimorski, a biologist with the LDWF's whooping crane reintroduction project.
The bird, native to North America, is now an endangered species, largely due to the loss of its wetlands habitat to agricultural use across the continent.
Louisiana's project to bring the distinctive birds back to the state began seven years ago, when 10 whooping cranes from a Maryland research center were brought to Louisiana and released in Vermilion Parish.
Each year since then, more birds have been added to the initial flock. Whooping cranes, which can live for 25 to 30 years, are slow to mature and typically don't reach sexual maturity until they're 3 years to 5 years old.
The ones brought to Louisiana have been less than one year old.
The first chicks to be born here hatched in 2016, with one out of two surviving that year. One out of three chicks that hatched in 2017 survived, according to Wildlife and Fisheries.
So this year's crop of five youngster whooping cranes is a milestone, Zimorski said.
Four whooping crane couples, which mate for life, raised a total of five chicks on private property, where owners are involved in the reintroduction efforts, in Acadia, Allen and Jefferson parishes this year, Zimorski said.
Three of the couples each had one chick, she said, and a fourth couple had two.
"That's not common," Zimorski said of the couple that raised a pair. "Typically, whooping cranes are only successful in raising one chick. The chicks are tiny and vulnerable."
The whooping cranes make their nests on the ground, she said.
"Whooping cranes aren't found in trees," Zimorski said. "Their back toe is not long enough to perch."
Louisiana's reintroduction project of the whooping crane is one of two projects that have been successful in the U.S., she said.
The other one is "an ongoing migratory (project) that's taught whooping cranes to migrate from Wisconsin down to Florida," Zimorski said.
Partners in Louisiana's whooping crane project includes the Audubon Nature Institute, the Cameron LNG plant, Chevron, the Coypu Foundation in Illinois, Entergy, the International Crane Foundation, the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Of the world's approximately 700 whooping cranes, approximately 200 survive in captive breeding areas and some zoos, Zimorski said.
The approximately 500 found in the wild include those in Louisiana, she said.
"Every year one true remnant population migrates to the Gulf Coast of Texas after nesting in Canada," she said.
At about 400 birds, that remnant numbers the largest population in North America, Zuimorski said.
"We have made a big recovery" but there's still much work to be done, she said.