FRANKFORT — Kentucky wildlife officials report they've spotted an endangered whooping crane at the Sloughs Wildlife Management Area near Henderson and that they've received a report of two others along the Pond River in Hopkins County.
The sightings of the rare birds, which are on the comeback from near extinction, prompted the Humane Society of the United States to again call for the halt of a hunting season on sandhill cranes for fear that shooters might mistakenly kill the whooping cranes instead.
Kentucky's second sandhill crane season, already under way, runs through Jan. 13 or until 400 of the birds are killed.
"Since whooping cranes bear a strong resemblance to sandhill cranes, continuing the hunt could put this seriously threatened species in extreme danger," said Pamela Rogers, the Humane Society's Kentucky director.
The whooping cranes, believed to be among a group released in other states in an effort to establish a flock in the eastern United States, are white with black wingtips and a red crown. They have wingspans of 71/2 feet and stand up to 5 feet tall on stilted legs.
Wildlife officials acknowledge that whooping cranes "are similar in silhouette" to sandhill cranes. However, they said sandhill cranes have gray bodies and are slightly smaller than whooping cranes.
The state wildlife agency circulated a news release last week alerting hunters that they should be careful not to confuse the whooping cranes with sandhill cranes or snow geese, which can be hunted in Kentucky.
Fewer than 600 whooping cranes now live in the wild in the United States.
"We are not surprised to learn that some whooping cranes have been sighted at this time in Kentucky," Rogers said. "In our comments to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife in opposition to the sandhill crane hunt, we noted that some whooping cranes flock with sand-hill cranes during migration stopovers."
Last year, hunters killed 50 sandhill cranes in Kentucky. The season marked the first sandhill crane hunting season in a state east of the Mississippi in a century.
Wildlife officials have said that "hunters pursuing migratory game birds are exceptionally skilled at identifying different species and have proven in other states with sandhill crane seasons that they are not likely to make an identification mistake."
Rogers isn't convinced.
"Over the past year, multiple whooping cranes have been illegally shot and the threat of poaching, accidental or otherwise, remains all too real," she said. "For the long-term survival of both species, we again urge Kentucky Fish and Wildlife to cancel this hunt. "