Juvenile whooping cranes.
The legacy of Josephine and Crip
When Louisiana wildlife agents release 11 young whooping cranes into the southwest Louisiana marsh in a week or two, they will bring the population there to nearly 80 cranes. That’s twice the number that could be found in the entire world in 1950, when just one bird lived by itself near White Lake in coastal Vermilion Parish.
The comeback is quite a story. The whooping crane’s unmistakable cry had not been heard in Louisiana’s wetlands for 60 years, until 10 young birds from the Patuxent Wildlife Center in Maryland were released here in 2011.
Patuxent continued to send birds to build the flock in Louisiana until federal budget cutters closed the center several years ago. But wildlife biologists have been able to keep the program going with birds hatched at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin and — significantly — at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans. In a sense, those Orleans-bred birds bring to full circle the attempt to preserve whooping cranes in Louisiana.
In 1938, there were 11 whooping cranes living near White Lake and 13 were counted in 1939. But only six were found after a hurricane in 1940. Two years later the count was down to five, then four in 1943, three in 1944, two in 1945 and 1946, and the bird nicknamed Lone Crane by biologists became the last of them in 1947. This crane was captured in 1950 and taken to a refuge in Texas, and then there were none left in the Louisiana marshes.
There was, however, one other survivor of that beleaguered flock. Her name was Josephine. A. O. LaHaye found her, crippled, on his farm in Evangeline Parish in the fall of 1940. Someone shot her in the wing and she could not fly.
LaHaye did not know he’d found one of the rarest birds in the world. He thought she was one of the more common sandhill cranes. Nonetheless, he nursed her back to health and kept her as a pet until Houston Gaston, a federal game agent, happened to see her. He convinced LaHaye to take her to the to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.
Josephine lived by herself at the zoo until 1948, when she was taken to the Aransas Pass, Texas, refuge where the last migrating flock of whooping cranes in North America spends the winter. Naturalists hoped a mate could be found for her and they would make little whoopers.
That wish went unfulfilled, and Josephine came back to the New Orleans zoo in late 1951, bringing with her an injured male called by what today would be regarded as the insensitive name of Crip. The Audubon zoo superintendent, George Douglass, thought the pair might accomplish in captivity what they had not done in the wild.
It took them a while.
In 1957, the Associated Press reported, “In 1952, the birds went into their high bounding, wing flopping nuptial dance but nothing happened. Three years later  Jo laid an egg, but got excited by a man outside the enclosure and stepped on it. Last year  two eggs were hatched. One chick, seized by an owl or rat, disappeared two days later. The second chick died of a fungus disease after 45 days.”
Then, in April 1957, Josephine laid two eggs. The first chick pecked its way out of its shell on May 21, the second on June 1. The birds were named George and Georgette, and two years later the zoo reported that were doing well, “in healthy plumage and show a good disposition.”
Over the next decade, Josephine laid 52 eggs at the zoo Twelve chicks hatched and four of those lived to maturity.
It was an inauspicious beginning, but could be called the start of an improbable circle; no one foresaw that birds bred in captivity in New Orleans six decades later would be returned to the marsh where whoopers once lived.
I don’t know if the pedigree of any of the birds now flying wild in Louisiana can be traced directly to Josephine and Crip but, given the small number of whooping cranes living in their day, it’s a good possibility.
There’s got to be a moral to a tale in which two injured birds survive and help preserve an entire species, but you’ll have to consult someone else about that. I just tell the stories.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.