Spring is a season long associated with renewal and new life, and the egg has always been a
symbol of that season. People have been decorating eggs as part of spring rituals since ancient
times, as evidenced by engraved ostrich eggs found in Africa which date back to 60,000 years
ago. It seems particularly appropriate that I’m writing this on Easter Sunday, when children all
over the country are participating in the modern Christian permutation of that tradition, which is
of course the easter egg hunt.
But me, I’m obsessing over a very specific egg today; an egg that hatched one year ago right here
in Louisiana. I remember quite vividly my elation last year upon reading that a whooping crane
nest had hatched not one, but two healthy chicks in a wild marsh in Jefferson Davis Parish. They
were the first wild chicks of the species born in Louisiana since 1939. Whooping cranes, which
stand at an impressive four-and- a-half feet tall and fly on a seven-and- a-half foot wingspan, are
one of only two species of North American cranes. They are only found on this continent. At the
moment of their hatching the two chicks joined one of the smallest populations of birds on our
planet. The whooping crane is one of the most endangered birds in the world, with the entire
population now consisting of just 600 individuals.
The whooping crane is believed to be a naturally rare animal even before humans pushed them to
the brink of extinction. Estimates put their numbers just over 10,000 before Europeans began to
settle North America. Between 1870 and 1938 their numbers dropped from roughly 1,300 to just
15 adults. Only through dedicated conservation efforts were biologists able to bring those
numbers back up. All 600 living whooping cranes are descendants of those 15 that remained in
1938. The largest flock that exists now, about 250 birds, is based in coastal Texas.
Getting those numbers up for a species that close to annihilation presents a number of daunting
challenges. Most notable among the difficulties with whooping cranes is reteaching hand raised
birds to migrate via routes that would normally be taught to each generation of by a large flock of
adults. Conservationists had to teach these migration routes themselves by convincing the cranes
to follow ultralight planes with wing markings resembling a giant whooping crane. There are now
more than 10 generations that have been successfully hand-raised and guided by ultralight pilots.
As for the two chicks born in Jefferson Davis Parish last year, only one lived to see its first
birthday. So it goes. The remaining crane has been dubbed LW1-16, and the celebration of her
birthday is a particularly poignant victory for Louisiana naturalists who remember when two
cranes were killed in 2011. In the very same parish in which LW1-16 was born, two young boys
aged 16 and 13 shot and killed two wild whooping cranes from a truck. The thoughtless
crime was a heavy blow to conservation efforts in Louisiana. The first birthday of LW1-
16 represents the persistence of those who recognize the value of biodiversity and the beauty of
these rare animals, just as the boys who needlessly killed the cranes in 2011 represent the
importance of educating future generations about our natural environments and teaching
ecological responsibility. If we can manage that then maybe next year LW1-16, who my friend
has affectionately named “Cowgirl”, will lay an Easter egg of her own. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Happy birthday, Cowgirl.