Is crane a lover seeking a mate, or a freeloader?
Published February 2, 2007

¨© Copyright 2002-2007, St. Petersburg Times [Florida]

HOMOSASSA SPRINGS, FL- One theory: The mourning period for whooping cranes is very short. Another: The rare birds so crave a free lunch they would trade their freedom for one.

Whatever the reason, the whooping crane population of Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park unexpectedly increased this week, and the new arrival caused quite a stir.

On Tuesday, workers noticed that one of the park's captive whooping cranes, Peepers, was not alone in her enclosure. She had been joined by a wild whooping crane, designated as 105.

That wild bird was part of the first group to be led to Citrus County from Wisconsin behind ultralight aircraft in 2001.

The mate of 105 was found dead in Hernando County several weeks ago. Now he may be looking for a replacement.

At first, park workers scared the crane off. It flew out of the pen and onto Fishbowl Drive, said park manager Art Yerian.

For safety reasons, workers immediately let the bird come back into the park and away from the road

The crane hung out with flamingos and spoonbills until park officials could contact the various agencies that have overseen the whooping crane reintroduction project.
They arrived at the park, dressed in crane costumes the young chicks are raised to recognize. They captured and crated 105 and drove him to a remote place in Pasco County, where he was released.

An hour later, Yerian got the call that the bird was tracking north again.

Thursday morning, 105 was back in Peeper's pen, helping himself to her food right in front of Rocky, the park's other captive crane.

Rocky and Peepers are in separate but adjacent pens. The two have been on display, getting accustomed to one another in hopes a pair bond would eventually form. But interloper 105 barged into the equation, sending local park and federal officials scrambling for a plan.

They settled on capturing the wild bird again after the park closed Thursday and moving it to another isolated place in north Florida. There, the crane will be confined in a top-netted pen for a couple of weeks, said Liz Condie of Operation Migration.
"We're hoping that does the trick," she said.

Officials don't know whether 105 has a romantic interest in Peepers or whether free food was the main draw.

How 105 found Peepers is also unknown, although the flight route for the migration comes near the park.

"Whooping cranes have to have some way to find each other and to pair and mate" in the wild, Condie said. "The bird down below could have called him."

"The crane foundation has already spent between $130,000 and $150,000 on this crane" and wants to keep the bird in the wild population, Yerian said.

"He's just looking for a mate," he said, noting that he will find one in Wisconsin when he returns in the spring.

The organizations that form the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership always focus on keeping the wild birds wild and making sure they don't become accustomed to human beings.

Still, park visitors filed by the wild crane Thursday, many not even realizing that one of the birds wasn't a permanent resident.

While the goal with the rare whooping cranes is always to keep human contact to a minimum, Condie said that as the project goes on year after year, new challenges arise to keep wild whooping cranes away from people.

"There are urban environments all around this area and it's inevitable that there are going to be some sightings and some conflicts," she said.

Just a couple of weeks ago, 105's mate had been found dead in the Hernando County swamp where the two had spent their last couple of winters. A cause of death has not yet been released. Whooping cranes pair and mate for life.

Days after its mate was found dead, 105 showed up at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge by the pen of the 2006 crane chicks. Keepers even snapped a picture of 105 "chatting up" the young chicks inside the pen and posted it on the Web site of Operation Migration.

Bob Roberts, who lives near the park and frequently walks there, said he watched and photographed the wild crane Thursday morning.

He said there was some discussion at the park about whether 105 should be allowed to stay if that's where his heart was.

"There are some romantic notions there," he said. "Some people are really in favor of intervening but others are wanting nature to have its way."