Florida Storms Batter Whooping Crane Colony The destructive storms in Florida last week killed a colony of whooping cranes. One lone male survived. Researchers will leave him in the wild, where he's mixed in with a flock of sandhill cranes.
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Florida Storms Batter Whooping Crane Colony

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Florida Storms Batter Whooping Crane Colony

Florida Storms Batter Whooping Crane Colony

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Here's a report on a storm survivor. It involves the storms that swept through Central Florida last week and left many dead and caused widespread damage.

The impact on wildlife is being felt, too. Government officials and wildlife groups say they are examining every part of a whooping crane migration program after 17 of the endangered birds died.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, scientists were cheered this week when they discovered that one young whooping crane apparently beat the odds.

GREG ALLEN: Joe Duff knows the surviving whooping crane well, a 10-month-old juvenile named Number 15.

JOE DUFF: A kind of independent bird. On the migration south, he was a bit of a problem. He kept dropping out.

ALLEN: Duff saw it happen. He was the lead pilot flying one of four ultra-light planes that actually lead the young birds on their migratory path from Wisconsin to Florida.

DUFF: That bird was lost on the migration, just at the Florida-Georgia border. He dropped out and we try to track it, but we couldn't find it. And it was actually discovered two days later.

ALLEN: The young bird was crated and trucked to Florida. Eventually, along with 17 other young cranes, it was taken to a covered four-acre-large salt-marsh pen in Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Tampa.

Duff is with Operation Migration, one of the groups working to reestablish a population of migrating whooping cranes in the eastern U.S. He says in the past, young whooping cranes held at the wildlife refuge have done well. This latest flock at Chassahowitzka also was thriving until the early morning hours of February 2nd. That's when storms hit the area.

For Duff and others who spent months with the birds, the loss was traumatic.

DUFF: You know, you spend so much time with these birds. In fact, these birds - we started within April, May, when they were hatched. It's just a huge shock initially when you find out that they're all gone.

ALLEN: No one was more devastated than Marianne Wellington, with the International Crane Foundation. She was one of those at the wildlife refuge who found the dead cranes after the storm. At first, she took little heart from the fact that they found only 17 cranes and that one was missing. She assumed the 18th crane also was dead, until she realized that the transponder device attached to the bird showed that Number 15 was moving.

Wellington says for the first time since the storm, she began to have a little hope.

MARIANNE WELLINGTON: We were pretty sure that that bird was alive and flying. And it was so - a wonderful ray of sunshine after the storm. It was great.

ALLEN: Since then, trackers have kept tabs on Crane Number 15. They say he's hanging around with sandhill cranes and appears healthy. Since the program was begun in 2001, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership - a coalition of government and private groups, has been bringing the birds to Florida with reasonable success. There are now over 60 wild migratory cranes on the East Coast.

There is one other U.S. population of wild migrating whooping cranes that winters in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas.

Rachel Levin, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says despite this setback, her agency is dedicated to reestablishing a second population of migratory whooping cranes in Florida.

RACHEL LEVIN: Everybody who works with fragile endangered species like whooping cranes knows that all it takes is one catastrophic storm, weather event, or disease outbreak to wipe out an entire population. So that was one of the main reasons for establishing this population in the eastern part of the country was just because of that.

ALLEN: Along with the survival of Number 15, there is one other bright spot. Another whooping crane made its way to Florida last year, and it came not with an ultra-light but with its parents. It was the first whooping crane hatched in the wild in Wisconsin, which migrated to Florida in over a century.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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