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Single Whooping Crane survives Florida tornadoes

Natural tragedy

A juvenile Whooping Crane found with Sandhill Cranes in a Florida wildlife refuge is the sole survivor of a flock which followed ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida, in the latest phase of one of the world’s most famous conservation projects.

Conservationists feared all 18 birds had died, either struck by lightning or drowned when a storm surge struck their enclosure. No one knows how ‘Number 15’ escaped, but the lucky bird was tracked down thanks to a radio transmitter attached to its leg.

Until disaster struck, the organisations that form the Whooping Crane Eastern Migration Partnership had been celebrating the safe arrival of the entire group of young birds from the Necedah refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowittzka in Florida, the first time in six years there had been no losses en route. The birds were part of a population set up in case disease – or natural disaster- hit the only self sustaining breeding population at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. This population winters near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, and currently numbers around 230 birds. There is another, non-migratory population of 70-plus captive-bred birds in Florida.

The Wisconsin-Florida migratory flock now numbers 64 birds, and Number 15 is expected to migrate back to Wisconsin in the company of his elders this spring. "It's a real disappointment to hear about the loss of the juvenile cranes, especially since it has taken so much coordinated effort to get this project going, but freak accidents happen," said Greg Butcher, Director of Bird Conservation at Audubon (BirdLife in the US). "The crucial thing is that the reintroductions were working out as a success. So many birds, and they were such good birds," said Joe Duff, co-founder of Operation Migration, which began the pioneering work with ultralight aircraft. “It was our hardest migration and our most difficult one to fund."

But the project partners remain determined and conservationists are optimistic that things will go better next year. "The crucial thing is that the reintroductions were working out as a success,” said Greg Butcher. “Things were going so well for the project that we expect it to rebound quickly."

4th July 2014