Whooping cranes return to Alabama national wildlife refuge

FILE - In this Jan 19, 2012, file photo, three endangered whooping cranes, two immature birds, second and third from left and a mature, all white, right, walk among a flock of sandhill cranes at the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, Ala. Whooping cranes are back at a national wildlife refuge in Alabama. The International Crane Foundation said Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, that, for the second year in a row, wild-hatched chick W7-17 was the first to arrive at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur. The two-year-old arrived Nov. 9.

Some migratory whooping cranes from Wisconsin are back at a national wildlife refuge in Alabama.

For the second year in a row, a wild-hatched crane known as W7-17 was the first to arrive on the 670-mile (1,080-kilometer) flight southward to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, the International Crane Foundation said Friday.

The 2-year-old female arrived last weekend and 13 others have followed, tracking devices and other reports show. The cranes are among about 100 in a flock that were taught to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida by following ultralight aircraft. More are likely to arrive in coming weeks, supervisory ranger Teresa Adams said in a telephone interview Friday.

Some will spend the winter there; others will fly on to Florida.

“With our Eastern birds, they’re kind of spread up and down the whole flyway,” said A.J. Binney, with the crane foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Some winter in Indiana, flying further south if an Arctic blast hits there, he said.

Whooping cranes are among the world's largest and rarest birds. About 850 of the birds are alive today, all descended from 15 that lived in coastal Texas in the 1940s. The adults, about 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, are white with red caps, black mustaches and black wingtips. Juveniles are mottled brown and white.

In addition to the flock taught to migrate, about 500 whooping cranes migrate between Canada and Texas each year.

There are also 69 of the rare cranes in a non-migratory flock in Louisiana and about 150 in captivity.

The first two or three whooping cranes showed up at Wheeler in 2004, but the refuge didn’t initially publicize their presence to avoid disturbing them, Adams said.

She said that for a few years, the number of cranes was about doubling every year.

Once whooping cranes began showing up around the refuge’s visitor center and the two-story observation building about 200 yards (180 meters) down a trail from it, the refuge began alerting the public “that we were getting these wonderful birds,” Adams said.

She said farmers are allowed to farm on part of the refuge in exchange for leaving some of their corn and soybeans in the field for ducks, geese and other migratory birds.

“The cranes like the corn,” Adams said. She said they also forage in a large nearby pond and other wetlands.

Migratory sandhill cranes winter there too, with about 20,000 staying there for the past two years. They’re gray, making them easy to tell apart from adult whoopers.

A tracking map shows about 14 whooping cranes now at the refuge.

“For this time of year, that’s a good number to have. Certainly, we expect we could have more over the next weeks,” Adams said.

The refuge’s annual Festival of the Cranes will be Jan. 11-12 at the visitor center.

Adams said the observation building has a one-way glass for viewing and stands on a knoll overlooking the field. A microphone picks up sounds from the field and pond.

“You can look right out the window and see five-thousand, six-thousand, seven-thousand sandhills and a few whooping cranes,” she said.

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McConnaughey reported from New Orleans.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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