FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Vicki M. Boatwright or December 9, 1996 Diana M. Hawkins 1996: YEAR OF THE MISSISSIPPI SANDHILL CRANE
1996 was a banner year for an endangered crane found only in one county in the entire world.
The Mississippi sandhill crane, found only on and adjacent to the refuge that bears its name on the Gulf coastal plain of Jackson County, Mississippi, set a couple of records for nesting, hatching and fledging this year, according to Refuge manager Joe Hardy.
Hardy reported a record 13 nesting pairs of the rare bird, the highest number recorded in 30 years of monitoring. Refuge surveys also revealed six new nesting pairs, three new active nesting territories, and three previously active territories used for the first time in at least 10 years.
"This year, for the first time, a pair of hand-reared cranes successfully hatched a chick," Hardy said. "Another first was the fledging of 'twin' cranes, two young from the same nest, a very unusual occurrence, he said.
The 4-foot crane with a 6-foot wing span is one of the most endangered birds in North America. Sometimes mistaken for the great blue heron, it is nearly all dark gray, with a red crown. Its vocalizations are loud and clattering. The Mississippi sandhill is one of six sandhill crane subspecies.
When the refuge was established for its protection in 1975, its numbers had dwindled to about 30-35 birds and their nesting habitat had disappeared. Today, through habitat restoration on the refuge, captive propagation efforts at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge and Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, and reintroduction of captive-raised cranes on the refuge since 1981, 100 free-flying cranes can be found in the refuge savannas.
"If it weren't for this refuge, there might not be any Mississippi sandhills," said refuge crane biologist Scott Hereford. "And to appreciate the significance of this year's crane activities, you have to understand something about this unique bird's biology."
They build their nests on the ground, mostly in open savannas and swamp openings, which have been reclaimed after years of active habitat management, he said. Paired cranes select a breeding territory for courtship, mating and nesting, usually one pair per open area. The cranes generally use their nesting territories year after year, some for as many as 10 to 17 years.
Hereford attributes the increase in nesting pairs to cranes released into the refuge from 1990-93, which are now breeding age. Half of those, he said, were the first hand-reared cranes ever released on the refuge.
"We are really ecstatic over the hatching of a chick from hand-reared cranes," Hereford said. "It means that our captive breeding efforts are paying off in terms of building a wild population. In fact, only one of the 13 nesting pairs was made up of two wild-hatched cranes. There was at least one captive- reared parent in the other 12 pairs."
These results bode well for the whooping crane reintroduction into central Florida, Hereford said, as most of the juvenile cranes released there are hand-reared.
Hand-reared chicks are cared for by humans who in some instances don Mississippi sandhill crane "costumes" to prevent imprinting of the birds to their human surrogate parents. Mississippi sandhill cranes lay up to two eggs per nesting season, but they are generally only successful in hatching one chick. Twins can be reared only under excellent habitat conditions by experienced pairs.
The refuge also reported the hatching of six chicks this year, and the fledging of three to flight stage. Although the three fledged birds represent a tie with the all-time high, biologists are trying to determine why the number fledged isn't higher, considering the jump in nesting pairs. Predation by coyotes is thought to be a significant factor, combined perhaps with infertile eggs and inexperienced pairs. Also perplexing is why some adult birds aren't attempting to nest yet. Hatching begins in April, peaks during the first 3 weeks of May, and ends by mid-June.
A record number of cranes were caught and fitted or refitted with radio transmitters this year. Monitoring radio-equipped cranes allows biologists to gather critical data on the birds' life history, including habitat use, movements, social structure, nesting and mortality. The refuge has an extensive data base of more than 13,000 entries on crane observations.
The refuge is actively managed to restore and enhance the open, savanna habitat preferred by the cranes for nesting, feeding, and roosting. This habitat work for the cranes has other benefits: it is helping restore native wet pine savanna, one of the most endangered, and also one of the most species-rich ecosystems in the country. Native wet pine savanna ranks as one of the highest priority ecosystems in the Southeast region. The refuge provides habitat for a number of other rare species including the threatened gopher tortoise and Bachman's sparrow.
Open to the public year-round, the refuge features guided tours in January and February to a crane observation area. It also offers a visitor center with dioramas and a nature trail past savanna marsh nesting habitat.
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1996 News Releases