Eighteen young whooping cranes led south for hundreds of miles from Wisconsin by ultralight aircraft last fall were killed in storms that hit Florida, dealing a blow to a project to create a second migratory flock of the endangered birds in North American, a spokesman said.
The cranes were being kept in an enclosure at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, Florida, when the storms moved in and intensified Thursday night, said Joe Duff, senior pilot and co-founder of Operation Migration, a nonprofit organization coordinating the project.
"The birds were checked in late afternoon the day before, and they were fine," Duff said.
But the area of the enclosure was unreachable by workers at night, and all the birds were found dead Friday, he said. Workers believe the birds might have drowned in a storm surge of the tide.
For the past six years, whooping cranes hatched in captivity have been raised at the 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, about 1,600km away. From then on, the birds migrate north in the spring and south in the fall on their own.
The various groups and agencies working on the project had seen the size of the flock grow to 81 birds with the latest arrivals at the Florida refuge, but the loss of the young cranes drops the total back to 63, and there could have been other losses as well.
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.
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