The state of Florida announced yesterday it plans to make homebodies out of migratory whooping cranes by planting baby whoopers with sedentary foster parents and hoping they learn to stay put.
The experiment is an unprecedented effort to raise the number of North America's whooping cranes. It is designed to avoid any political problems the young whoopers might create should they be otherwise inclined to pull up stakes and cross state lines.
Officials of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission believe that within 10 or 20 years the effort could double the continent's whooping crane population, now estimated to be about 76 adults in the wild.
Scientists have tried successfully in recent years to plant whooping crane eggs among unsuspecting hosts. But the Florida experiment marks the first time authorities have attempted to change the migratory habits of the endangered birds.
The reason for the unusual effort, ornithologists and state officials say, is largely political. They believe keeping the flock settled year-round in Florida is essential because they cannot depend on other states to enforce federal endangered species laws during migration.
"In most of this endangered species work," said one whooping crane authority, "politics is right there."
Florida is one of two areas selected nationally in an attempt to diversify the whooping crane's nesting areas. The world's primary flock is located in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, and flies for the winter to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, Tex. w
This group of more than 70 rare birds has increased almost annually since it came near extinction 40 years ago, but ornithologists and federal officials are afraid the species could be devastated if either of its nesting sites were visited by man-made or national disasters, such as a hurricane.
Consequently, authorities have undertaken an effort to establish separate flocks in different locations. "We'd rather not have all our eggs in one basket," said an official of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Since 1975, for instance, scientists have been transplanting eggs from the main flock, and from 23 cranes held at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, to nests of greater sand hill cranes by Grays Lake, Idaho.
Approximately 17 of these young birds fly each winter to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Other locations being studied for similar flocks are in areas of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and in south-western Ontario.
As the species spreads out goegraphically, however, scientists fear their ability to monitor the bird, and ensure its safety, will diminish. Already there is concern that hunters would object to the protected bird's presence among duck and geese and that some whooping cranes could be shot by mistake.
"We definitely want our flock to be nonmigratory," said Donald A. Wood, endangered species coordinator for Florida's wildlife agency. "We do not want to cause any other states problems.I'm sure wildlife organizations would be up in arms if other states did not use some resources to protect them."
Scientists are not sure whooping cranes will learn to refuse the call of the changing seasons and stay in Florida. "Many people feel that young cranes learn migration," said Scott Derrickson, a research behaviorist at the Patuxent laboratory."But other people can argue other ways. We'll just have to wait and see."