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Bay Area Birds: Four species to come back from the brink

By Charlie Frisk

In Wisconsin there is good news with the dramatic recovery of four species of large, beautiful birds.

These are species that were either totally extirpated (meaning that they were down to zero in Wisconsin, but still survived in other areas), or had been reduced to extremely low numbers.

By the 1930s the sandhill crane was down to about 25 breeding pairs in all of Wisconsin.

The decline was due to the destruction of habitat and uncontrolled hunting.

The population was so low the great conservationist Aldo Leopold feared the sandhill crane would soon be extirpated from Wisconsin.

He wrote about the end of sandhill cranes in his essay “Marshland Elegy” in 1948.

“Someday, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh,” Leopold penned.
Fortunately, this was one of the few times Leopold was wrong.

Today the sandhill population in Wisconsin is about 100,000 birds.

With restoration of wetlands and protection from hunting, the sandhill crane has made a robust recovery.

The sandhill crane is an ancient bird – the first time I saw one it brought to mind a pterodactyl, but just as spectacular as their appearance are their beautiful calls.

Today, sandhill cranes can be seen all around the Green Bay area. Any place there are wetlands there are sandhills.

Bald eagles

The bald eagle nearly disappeared from Wisconsin, and appeared to be headed for extinction nationwide.

The main culprit in bald eagle decline was the use of the pesticide DDT, which concentrated to high levels in fish eating birds and resulted in thinning of eggshells, leaving them unable to reproduce.

DDT was banned by the EPA in 1972, and eagles were given extra protection by the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1978.

In 1974 there were less than 100 occupied eagle nests in Wisconsin, all found in the northern third of the state.

Today there are about 1,700 active nests, found in all Wisconsin counties, except Milwaukee.

Bald eagles are now so common, they can be seen all around Green Bay, but for a guarantee of seeing bald eagles, go to Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary.

Trumpeter swans

The trumpeter swan was extirpated in Wisconsin by the late 1880s.

They were exterminated by uncontrolled hunting, primarily for their down and feathers.

Egg collecting also played a role in the decline.

By 1933 there were less than 70 trumpeters in the lower 48, all primarily in the Yellowstone National Park area.

Trumpeters were reintroduced in Wisconsin in 1989, with captive reared birds hatched from eggs taken from a trumpeter population in Alaska.

Biologists collected 60 eggs from trumpeter nests in Alaska and kept them warm with hot water bottles on the flight back to Wisconsin.

Forty of the eggs went to Wisconsin and 20 to Michigan, and 95 percent of the eggs hatched successfully.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ original goal was to have 20 breeding pairs by the year 2000
Today, Wisconsin has over 5,000 trumpeters.

There is no guaranteed place to see trumpeters in Northeast Wisconsin.

Some years there has been a nesting pair on the Mack Wildlife Area between Black Creek and Shiocton.

They are occasionally sighted on the Bay of Green Bay and the Fox River, and there are some injured trumpeters living out their life at Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary.

White pelicans

Wisconsin’s largest bird, the white pelican, was largely gone from the state by the 1800s.

Four white pelicans cruise the water at Sensiba State Wildlife Area in Suamico March 27. Ben Rodgers Photo

They had been exterminated for their down and feathers.

During their nesting season, there is a period when pelicans shed all of their flight feathers and become flightless.
Feather collectors would go onto their nesting islands and club every bird to death.

Pelicans had been absent from the Bay of Green Bay for so long there is no reliable record of when they last nested there.

In the mid ’90s, a pair produced a single young on Cat Island and the recovery was on.

Today, there are more than 4,000 nesting pairs on the Bay of Green Bay and a large population at Horicon Marsh.

During the summer, white pelicans can be seen from any of the bridges crossing the Fox River.

A good place to watch them fishing is from the viewing platforms at the De Pere dam.

With their size, brilliant white color and black wingtips they are a spectacular sight while soaring.

Just a few decades ago these four species of birds were either totally absent or extremely rare in Wisconsin.

Today they are common.

When society has the political will it can do amazing things.

We should be thankful for the work done by conservationists and legislators to bring these large, spectacular birds back to Wisconsin.

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