It is with true sadness that I’m writing to report the death of one of the 2010 LA whooping cranes. L7-10 began her life in LA, as an egg produced at the Audubon Species Survival Center, and sadly last week her life ended in LA.
I’ll never forget L7 because in mid-March when we released the birds from the top-netted acclimation enclosure she was the first one to fly and I just about fell over because although she walked fine and had always walked fine when she got up in the air her left leg hung down. I was shocked to see this because when a crane flies with a dangling leg it’s usually a result of a broken or severely injured leg, yet this bird had just walked in front of me without so much as a limp. I watched anxiously, waiting for her to land, expecting there to be a major problem but she landed with only the usual clumsiness of a first time flier and no indication there was anything wrong with her leg. After sending photographs around to our state vet and the small crane vet community it was thought that she might have some kind of nerve or tendon damage causing the leg to hang down in flight but appear normal when walking. Since it only looked strange but didn’t seem to affect her there was nothing to do except monitor her.
As the marsh dried and the birds split up and moved around L7 remained close with #’s 2 & 4 in the north end of the impoundment where the pen is located. On 30 May she was seen by herself and was noted to have an odd gait with her left leg but still looked good and was actively foraging. She did however have a lot of mud on her feathers and mud covering the solar panels on her transmitter which caused it to stop working. I saw her the next day from a plane and she looked good, again actively foraging.
A week later she was not so good. A local landowner several miles north of the marsh called and reported that she appeared to be sick or injured. My colleague from LSU, Tandi Perkins, headed down to White Lake to find her. L7 could walk and fly but was weak and lethargic and not behaving normally. Tandi was able to catch her and immediately noticed how thin she was. We began making phone calls and arrangements and later that evening got her into the top-netted pen with food and water. She didn’t have any wounds, injuries, or broken bones but after putting her down in the pen Tandi and I were both able to observe the abnormal gait of her left leg – similar to, but worse than what had been seen a week earlier.
The next day we took her to the LSU vet school and Dr. Tom Tully and his team worked with us to get her examined and evaluated. They took radiographs and blood. They gave her fluids and a variety of medication. The good news is there were no major problems detected – there was no foreign body or obstruction, no broken bones, and even her blood work wasn’t that bad – no raging infection. The flip side of course is that we didn’t have a clear answer as to what was going on with her leg or why she was so thin. We brought her back to the pen with prescriptions for antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication as well as rest and monitoring in a contained environment.
Early the next week our state vet, Dr. Jim LaCour, came down to examine her and repeat the blood work. We also started her on some medication for a parasite that was found in her feces. She ate and drank and slowly began to gain a little bit of weight but her leg issue remained the same. Unfortunately by the end of her first full week in the pen I began to hear some gurgly respiratory noises. We immediately put her on some additional medication for a fungal infection which I suspected she had now developed. Her outlook for recovering and being released had been slim but now with a respiratory infection her chances of survival weren’t looking that good.
I cared for her every day and felt bad that my costumed presence wasn’t a comfort to her as it had been when she was young. Because she had been caught and handled she had become wary of the costume and that wariness grew each time I had to catch her and restrain her to weigh her or give her, her meds.
We scheduled a return visit to the LSU vet school exactly 2 weeks after we’d been there the first time. The main issue this time was her respiratory system; her leg and low weight were secondary problems of lesser concern at this point. Sadly Dr. Nevarez and his team found granulomas in her lungs, likely an Aspergillosis infection just as I suspected and feared. Unfortunately, there is no good way to treat this type of infection so the decision was made to humanely euthanize L7-10. Her life was short but I’d like to think it was good, especially the few months she had to fly free over the marshes of southern LA.
In addition to our core whooping crane team I am very grateful to Dr. LaCour who was wonderful to work with during this difficult time, to the landowner who reported the bird to us and to the White Lake staff who helped Tandi initially find and capture #7. We are also incredibly grateful to the LSU vet school, in particular Drs. Tully and Nevarez and their teams for their assistance and excellent work in caring for and treating our L7.
Update written by Sara Zimorski