MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Each winter, Alabama is lucky to host a handful of wild Whooping Cranes, one of the most threatened birds in the nation. But as the species struggles to survive, with fewer than 500 birds still alive in the wild, uncaring humans with guns are proving to be a major hurdle for efforts to restore their numbers.
Whooping Cranes are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, and shooting one can be costly. A Texas man found out just how costly a few weeks ago.
After being convicted of killing two Whooping Cranes, he was fined $25,810 and sentenced to five years probation. During that time, he is not allowed to hunt, fish or own a firearm. He also will have to perform 200 hours of community service.
Still, considering the cost of raising a crane from an egg and introducing it into the wild, that punishment was mild. That price tag for a crane raised from an egg and successfully released in the wild approaches $115,000 per bird. (In one other case, a South Dakota man was fined $85,000 for killing one Whooping Crane.)
But money is not the real issue; the survival of this species of bird is at risk.
Shootings are on the rise. Lizzie Condon, the International Crane Foundation's outreach specialist, says that from 1967 through 1999, there were only five shootings of Whooping Cranes on record. But in the past five years, at least 20 shootings have occurred.
That may not sound like much, but consider that even with intense conservation and reintroduction efforts, only a few more than 450 birds are believed to exist in the wild and another 150 in captivity.
The Whooping Crane reached near extinction in the 1940s, with only an estimated 15 to 20 birds in the wild.
The Whooping Crane remains the most threatened of cranes in the world. Partly because the majority of the birds are in one migratory flock that summers in northern Canada and winters in southern Texas, scientists fear that an outbreak of disease or another catastrophe could bring the species to the brink of extinction again. That makes efforts to re-establish flocks in other locations critically important.
In recent years, Alabamians have been able to regularly see a half-dozen or more Whooping Cranes that have made their winter home in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge outside Decatur, Ala., where this rare bird mixes with thousands of Sandhill Cranes. (See photos.)
The first Whooping Crane of this winter arrived recently at Wheeler.
The graceful whoopers, the tallest bird in the United States, easily stand out at Wheeler when mixing with the thousands of slightly smaller and grayish Sandhill Cranes (which alone would be worth a trip to Wheeler). (See photos.)
"We have had as many as six Whooping Cranes at one time and 8,000 Sandhill Cranes at Wheeler this winter," Wheeler's former director, Dwight Cooley, told me last year before his retirement. He said some whoopers stay throughout the winter, while others come and go.
The Whooping Cranes found in the winter at Wheeler migrate from Wisconsin each year, unlike the largest group that migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in southern Texas. While conservation groups have worked hard in past decades to establish protected wetlands for the cranes and other birds in Florida and Louisiana, it should be noted that the birds that winter at Wheeler chose Alabama on their own.
Lizzie Condon has traveled throughout the United States to study cranes. While we were sitting last year in the observation building at Wheeler -- toasty warm on a blustery winter day -- she told me that Wheeler is the easiest place she knows to see the rare Whooping Crane.
The Wheeler visitor center on the outskirts of Decatur is easily accessible, only a mile off Interstate 65 about 20 minutes from Huntsville and an hour from Birmingham. The nearby observation building has large glass windows allowing visitors to view the birds without disturbing them.
And it's free.
It is crucial for the continued existence of this beautiful bird and other endangered species that legal authorities vigorously enforce state and federal laws protecting them, and judges come down hard on those who break those laws.
I also urge crane conservation groups to bring civil action against those who kill one of their cranes (they are banded and can be tracked) to recover all costs plus court costs. Again, it's not about the money but about establishing there are consequences for killing these birds.
To learn more about the Whooping Crane, visit the International Crane Foundation website at: www.savingcranes.org/
To learn more about Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, go to: www.fws.gov/refuge/wheeler/
To learn what you can do to protect cranes, go to: www.savingcranes.org/i-give-a-whoop/
BIRMINGHAM AUDUBON PROGRAMS
The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips this fall, including a Saturday, Nov. 19, field trip to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. For details, see the Birmingham Audubon website (below).
In addition, the new schedule has been announced for the 2016-2017 Audubon Teaches Nature programs at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. You definitely should check out a few of the programs; I plan to attend all I can work into my schedule.
The next scheduled program will be on "Exploring Wild Alabama" with Larry Davenport and Ken Wills, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2 p.m., in the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center at Oak Mountain State Park. The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.
For details, go to: http://birminghamaudubon.org/
NORTH ALABAMA BIRDWATCHERS SOCIETY
NABS is one of the most free-wheeling birding groups around, with meetings aimed primarily at getting out into the field. On Dec. 3, the group will take a field trip to the White Springs Dike and Beaverdam Peninsula sections of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Non-members are welcomed. For details, go to: http://www.northalbirding.com/
ALABAMA WILDLIFE CENTER
The Alabama Wildlife Center in Oak Mountain State Park does yeoman's work in rehabilitating injured and abandoned native Alabama birds. To help this great work, consider attending the center's annual Holiday Crafts and Bake Sale on Saturday, Dec. 3, in Veterans Park on Valleydale Road in Hoover.
In addition to crafts, artwork and food (for instance, frozen casseroles to feed the family during the busy holiday season), there will be photos with Santa and chances to see glove-trained hawks and owls native to Alabama. It should be fun and a chance to help a worthy organization.
Details at: www.awrc.org
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.