LPB presents Alive! in America’s Delta: The Whooping Crane’s Majestic Return

Louisiana Public Broadcasting unveils a special presentation of the first episode of its new six-part series Alive! In America’s Delta at 7 p.m. Monday on LPB and at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23, on WLAE in New Orleans.

The series was produced with the generous support and assistance of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

By 1954, Louisiana had lost its entire population of whooping cranes. This majestic North American bird had been over-hunted and much of its coastal habitat was converted to farmland, pushing the population to the brink of extinction and leaving only 16 birds remaining in the world. To assist in the survival of the species, U.S. and Canadian biologists started by working to re-establish the bird, and in the process have learned even more about the whooping crane. Through this intensive, international effort, there are now more than 400 in the wild, and while there is new hope for the future of the species, their ultimate survival is not guaranteed.

This documentary follows the newest initiative to reintroduce whooping cranes into their ancestral territory currently under way in southwest Louisiana, with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries taking the lead. Each year, whooping cranes born in captivity are raised by costumed caretakers at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, run by the U.S. Geological Survey, with the intent of reintroducing them into the wild.

“This project has been in the works for a long time, because Louisiana has a very large area of high quality habitat for cranes. We’re proud to have the opportunity to restore a native species that was lost. With the reintroduction of the whooping crane in Louisiana, we become the latest partner in a consortium of scientists and conservationists across the North American continent restoring cranes,” said LDWF administrator Bob Love.

By increasing the numbers of whooping cranes, the bird could eventually be removed from the list of critically endangered species. The addition of a separate non-migratory flock will also serve to protect the species from the danger of disease or a catastrophic event like a hurricane or oil spill.

South Louisiana has retained an extensive crane habitat, with coastal marshlands providing an abundance of food. The reintroduced whooping cranes also frequent rice and crawfish farms, which are a rich source of foraging material. But even with an ideal habitat, the young birds lack the guidance and protection of whooping crane parents, which makes them even more vulnerable as they are introduced to the wild with its predators and man-made dangers.

For an exclusive view of these remarkable animals and the professionals who prepare them to thrive successfully in the wild, LPB producer Donna LaFleur and photographer Rex Q. Fortenberry followed alongside the LDWF staff members as they worked with the cranes. Fortenberry even donned the required crane costume to disguise himself and his camera to capture the arrival of the young birds to the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area and throughout their release into the Louisiana marshlands south of Gueydan.

Additionally, LDWF biologists wore cameras strapped to their chests while interacting with the birds, giving viewers an intimate look at the young cranes and how they relate to their costumed caretakers, and revealing how staff members approach issues like medicating the birds and achieving dominance over cranes that might challenge their authority.

“The main purpose of the costume is to disguise the fact that we’re people underneath the costume. We think that the best chances to succeed in the wild is to not be comfortable, not be used to being around people. They don’t see us; we don’t speak around the birds,” said LDWF biologist Sara Zimorski.

Among those appearing in the documentary are Love and Zimorski; assigned to the Louisiana whooping crane reintroduction project, Zimorski began working with cranes as a young intern at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. Research Leader Sammy King, Ph.D., and Research Associate Tandi Perkins from the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit also provide commentary; King talks about the biological characteristics of the whooping crane, while Perkins follows the cranes after their release, using satellite transmitters to track their location in the wild.

“This is at least a 20-year project; it’s not going to happen overnight. But we intend to stay the course and we think we’re going to be successful,” said Love. “If you ever look a whooping crane in the eye and see their determination and their visual acuity, and watch their behavior, you know that bird is going to uphold its end of the bargain.”

Future episodes in the Alive! In America’s Delta series explore Louisiana black bears, wildlife enforcement, and endangered species on land and in the water.

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