The Hiwassee Refuge has played host to thousands of sandhill cranes over the past two decades during their annual migration. Operation Migration, which developed a method utilizing ultralight aircraft to teach migration to several species, used the refuge as a rest stop on their ultralight led migration during the first several years of that effort. As a result, several whooping cranes now migrate to the area and spend most of the winter with groups of sandhill cranes.
The female crane, labeled 13-12, is part of a special effort by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to establish an eastern migrating population of whooping cranes. Originally released in October 2012 at Horicon National Refuge, Wis., it linked up with other young-of-the-year birds. A group of five cranes from the release ended up the furthest south, marking the first time they had gone as far as the Everglades.
In early January, two cranes showed up at the interface of wetlands and suburbia on the eastern side of the Everglades around the edge of North Miami. Members of the public reported that one of the birds was limping. The bird later showed signs of distress, with an injury to her right foot.
The partnership team responsible conducted a quick but thorough discussion to determine the best possible outcomes, weighing the risk or capture with the benefits of medical treatment.
"We chose to capture this injured whooping crane, and it has turned out to be the right call," said Billy Brooks, Whooping Crane Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for Eastern Migratory Population. "Because of the efforts of Dr. Scott Terrill, DVM, at Disney, and that of the capture team, we were able to get this bird back out in the wild."
She was captured on January 26 and transported to Disney's Animal Kingdom, where her right middle toe was amputated. The veterinarians maintained the isolation protocol, operating in costume without using human voices as they medically addressed the bird. She remained at Disney continued to improve until transported north on for her release.
"The longer you hold a bird, the more tame it can become," said Brooks. "We have to keep them as wild as possible, and two week in captivity is about as long as experts like to keep an injured bird in captivity."
Upon its release, the crane flew several hundred yards where it joined a large gathering of sandhill cranes. The Hiwassee Refuge Observation Platform is open year round for wildlife viewing during daylight hours.
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