NEW ORLEANS -- Two whooping cranes - some of the world's rarest and largest birds - have been killed near the Louisiana community of Jennings, and a witness reported that two boys shot them from a truck, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said.
The cranes were among 10 released in February at White Lake in southwest Louisiana, where the state's last wild flock lived in 1939. Only about 400 live in the wild, and about 250 in captivity - all descended from 15 birds that were the world's entire population of whooping cranes in the early 1940s.
"Losing two cranes, especially in such a thoughtless manner, is a huge setback in the department's efforts to re-establish a whooping crane population in Louisiana," department secretary Robert Barham said Tuesday. "We take this careless crime very seriously."
The witness told authorities that the birds were shot Sunday, said Adam Einck, spokesman for the department's enforcement division. He said a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old boy have been told they are suspects based on witness's description of their truck and other information provided to investigators.
"They haven't been arrested," he said, adding no charges have been filed at this point. They weren't identified by name.
He said investigators didn't know whether one or both actually shot at the birds, whether a rifle or shotgun was used and whether the birds were flying or standing in a field. The carcasses were retrieved Monday.
Only five of the cranes released in Louisiana remain alive. One disappeared in June around St. Martinville and is presumed dead. Another flew about 80 miles to Morganza, where evidence indicates a predator ate it, and one had to be euthanized because of a lung infection, department spokesman Bo Boehringer said in an email.
Satellite transmitters have located four recently and one is currently unaccounted for, Boehringer added.
Whooping cranes, which can grow to 5 feet tall and boast a 7-foot wingspan at maturity, are named for a call that can be heard a half-mile away. The ones released in Louisiana were raised at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.
Sunday's shootings came the same day that three young whooping cranes, guided by ultralight pilots, left a refuge in Wisconsin on their first migration to Florida.
Biologists hope to replicate success they've had nurturing a flock that migrates between Texas and Canada and creating a flock that migrates between Florida and Wisconsin. The three that left Wisconsin are part of the 11th hand-raised generation to be taught how to migrate with help from ultralight planes.
Related - Online:
International Crane Foundation: http://www.savingcranes.org/whoopingcrane.html
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership: http://www.bringbackthecranes.org/