The birdnapping of Lone Crane

By Jim Bradshaw

The marsh around White Lake in Vermilion Parish was once the home of the last resident Whooping Crane in Louisiana.

Dubbed "Lone Crane" by naturalist John Lynch, the bird lived by itself for two years, until Lynch and others swooped down on it in March 1950, birdnapped him, and took him to Aransas Pass, Texas, to live with a flock of whoopers there.

In 1939, there were 13 Whooping Cranes in the White Lake region. But a huge storm in 1940 left only six whoopers alive. By 1947, Lone Crane was the only one left.

There was another survivor of the 1940 storm, but she was no longer in the marsh.

Her name was Josephine, and a farmer, A.O. LaHaye, found her in his field in Evangeline Parish, 50 miles north of White Lake. One of her wings had been crippled 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 the bird back to health and kept her in a pen until game agent Houston C. Gaston, happened to see the bird and identified her as a Whooping Crane.

He convinced LaHaye that the bird should be taken to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

Josephine lived by herself at the zoo until 1948, when she was taken to Aransas Pass, where the last known migrating flock of whooping cranes in North America spent the winter in a federally protected wildlife area.

Lynch thought Lone Crane could be reintroduced to Josephine, and that's how the birdnapping scheme evolved.

Certainly no other whoopers were going to come to the Louisiana marsh, because the flock here did not migrate.

Unlike the Aransas Pass flock that flew to the wilds of northern Canada each spring and returned to Texas in the fall, the Louisiana birds were perfectly content to hang around White Lake all year long.

That meant that Lone Crane was unlikely to leave on his own, and made it equally unlikely that other whoopers would come to Louisiana to join him.

So, on Saturday, March 11, 1950, L.L. (Mac) McCombie, a pilot for Petroleum Helicopters, swooped down on Lone Crane after chasing him across the marsh in one of those little bubble-headed choppers that were PHI's first ships.

Robert Allen of the Audubon Society and Nick Schexnayder, superintendent of the Rainey Wildlife Refuge, jumped out of the helicopter, grabbed the bird, slipped a burlap sack over his wings, and wrestled him into the little chopper. Lynch was in a second helicopter, recording the scene.

They created a stir when they swooped into Abbeville, loaded the bird into the back seat of a car, and headed for Texas.

"When our Louisiana crane arrived in Texas, and saw some of his own kind for the first time in two years, he whooped with joy," Lynch told a reporter.

Unfortunately, the saga of Lone Crane had a less joyous ending.

It took him a while to get acclimated. He fought with other birds.

And then, in September, Lone Crane was found dead - most likely killed by a predator that had gotten into the enclosure.

Since Lynch and his cronies birdnapped Lone Crane, the world flock of whoopers has grown to more than 400, in part due to a plan Lynch proposed to Canadian and U.S. officials in 1956, and there is talk about reintroducing the birds to the White Lake area.

There's a good chance that it will happen. After all, it was once a spot that whoopers liked so much that they refused to leave.

You can contact Jim Bradshaw by e-mail at jhbradshaw@bellsouth.net or by mail at P.O. Box 1121, Washington, LA 70589.

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