In Indiana, efforts intensify to protect endangered whooping cranes
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Whooping cranes are some of the rarest species on Earth, and there have been up to 44 of them spotted in Indiana so far this winter.
In an effort to educate Hoosiers about the birds, James Kawlewski, a whooping crane outreach program assistant with the International Crane Foundation, relocated to Greene County in November and will be in Indiana through March. Most days, Kawlewski can be found at the Goose Pond Visitors Center or – later in the day, when the center closes – at the Dairy Queen in Bloomfield.
Indiana and Alabama are the only two states that have outreach programs to educate residents about whooping cranes. Both are stopover states for whooping cranes and in both, people have shot and killed some of the birds. Illegal shootings are one of the threats the whooping cranes face, and this is the month, historically, when many of those deaths occur. In the past five years, nearly 40 percent of all whooping crane shootings happened in January.
In late December 2016 or early January 2017, a female whooping crane was killed near Lyons in Greene County. A $15,000 reward is still available for information leading to an arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for killing the bird. That was the second whooping crane found dead in Greene County in recent years; the first was found dead in early January 2012.
“They’ve already faced other predation,” Kawlewski said about the cranes, adding that natural predators such as bobcats and manmade dangers such as power lines kill some birds. “We want people to know that it’s an endangered species and they should care about them.”
The whooping cranes that fly through or stop in Indiana are part of the eastern population that has been re-established in large part by the group Operation Migration, which raised whooping cranes that were then led along migration paths from Wisconsin to Florida using ultralight aircraft. Whooping cranes began migrating through Indiana in 2003.
Although the aircraft-aided migration ended in 2015, Operation Migration has continued to help other agencies and groups raise and release chicks in Wisconsin that follow adult birds along the migration path south to Florida.
In December, Operation Migration used Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area as a release area for three juvenile whooping cranes raised in Wisconsin who had refused to migrate south. The three “colts” were transported to Indiana and released in an area where adult cranes were resting on Dec. 12. A report states there were at least 12 adults roosting in the marsh where the three young cranes were released. Within a day, the three had flown south with some of the adults. The last recorded location for one of the chicks that was outfitted with a satellite transmitter was in Tennessee.
“Every bird counts,” Kawlewski said. “We find that a lot of people know nothing about whooping cranes.”
As part of his outreach, Kawlewski has been talking to various groups, from hunters to birders to photographers. He’s educating them about whooping cranes and explaining how rare they are, as well as giving information about how to properly view them from a safe distance in a way that doesn’t disturb them.
With funds from a Duke Energy grant, he has put together five trunks full of educational items that will be distributed to various groups in Bloomfield, Indianapolis, Bloomington and Terre Haute. The trunks contain movies about whooping cranes, replicas of a crane egg and skull as well as some food that cranes eat. The trunk comes with an explanatory manual that is geared toward students in grades 4-8, but can be adapted for both younger students as well as older youth and adults. The trunks should be ready by the end of the month and will eventually be available for others to borrow and share, Kawlewski said.
The hope is that students and others will learn from the information inside the trunks and then visit an area where whooping cranes have been spotted. “It’s a good way to develop a connection with the animal,” Kawlewski said.
That’s important, since there are only 111 whooping cranes in the eastern flyway. That’s more than the 20 birds that were alive in the 1940s and 1950s, but it’s still below the numbers needed to have a functioning population. Kawlewski said the current population is still considered an “experimental” population because it’s not self-sustaining.