A new whooping crane observatory at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center will allow the public to see the endangered cranes up-close and year-round for the first time.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the observatory was held at the research center's 75th anniversary celebration and Wildlife Festival Saturday, Oct. 15, while live footage of the cranes streamed from the observatory.
"Only a handful of people have seen whooping cranes," Greg Smith, director of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, said.
Even most employees at the center had not seen the endangered cranes. The birds are very sensitive to human disturbance, said John French, a research wildlife biologist. Before, visitors could only see the cranes in-person one day a year.
"We don't want them to get comfortable around humans… so when we let them go, they're as wild as possible," French said.
The new observatory allows visitors to peer through three windows in a small shelter directly into the pens housing the cranes.
"For the first time, it'll allow the public, especially school youth, to come in and see cranes almost year-round," Smith said.
"It's probably one of the most exciting educational opportunities to come to the refuge," said refuge manager Brad Knudsen.
'Canus' leads the way
Crane restoration efforts at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center began in 1966, when the center received its first whooping crane from Canada. The crane was taken in because of a broken wing, which had to be amputated.
The bird, named Canus for the partnership between Canada and the United States, provided the impetus for whooping crane restoration efforts at the center, French said.
As the first whooping crane kept at the research center, Canus provided researchers with new information on how to care for the birds in captivity.
"Canus was a very important bird for us," French said.
The research facility focused on creating breeding stock for its first 15 to 20 years.
Only 16 whooping cranes were known to live in the wild after hunting and habitat loss decimated the species in the early 1900s, French said. Now, there are more than 400 birds.
The research center's efforts have expanded to include multiple centers that reintroduce the cranes into two wild flocks. The eastern migratory flock travels from Wisconsin to Florida, and chicks are trained to make the flight behind an ultralight aircraft.
Ten birds were sent to the non-migratory flock native to Louisiana this February, inaugurating restoration efforts there.
While the cranes "survive beautifully," the program has seen some drawbacks, French said.
The cranes pair and mate "very well," but have limited success incubating their eggs, he said. Deaths of birds due to natural causes and the shooting of two cranes by teens in Louisiana last week also hindered progress.
"I think it brings home how much more education we have to get to the general public," French said.
He said the center is hopeful for restoration success as it has found that whooping cranes can thrive in a wider range of habitats than originally thought.
"Great strides have been made, but there's still a lot of progress to be made toward recovery," Knudsen said.
The Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge opened as the nation's first research refuge in 1936. It opened to the public with the dedication of its visitors center 17 years ago. Knudsen said the visitors center sees about 200,000 visitors each year.
Saturday's Wildlife Festival featured information booths on the center's current research and activities geared toward children, including capture net demos, frog call demonstrations and live hawks and owls.
Rep. John Sarbanes, who represents Maryland's 3rd District and is active on environmental issues, was among those who helped celebrate the opening of the new crane observatory. Sarbanes, author of the No Child Left Inside Act — an initiative supported by more than 2,000 organizations to help ensure that every student achieves a basic environmental literacy — emphasized the importance of educating children about the outdoors.
"We need to have giant, outdoor classrooms," Sarbanes said. "That's what Patuxent is."
Knudsen said the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge sees approximately 8,000 children in its environmental education programs each year. Children take part in activities like creating schoolyard habitats, where they can return to see the growth of seeds they planted.
He said the whooping crane observatory will be open on days selected by the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center staff. Tickets to see the cranes on these days will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The visitor center at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, 10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop, is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, with no admission fee. Visitors can hike nearby trails from sunrise to sunset.