Will the Whooping Crane Partners Opt for Black Fly Suppression?

By 2005, four individual birds in Wisconsin’s growing flock of whooping cranes had formed pairs and made a first attempt at nesting. No one was surprised when the two nests that resulted were unsuccessful – these were still young and inexperienced birds. When one of the pairs succeeded in 2006 in welcoming the first wild whooping crane hatched in Wisconsin in more than a century, the wildlife community was jubilant. And optimistic that more such successes would naturally be following in succeeding years.

Parent and chick: Wisconsin is yearning for more of these - in the wild. (Photo courtesy of ICF)

Parent and chick: Wisconsin is yearning for more of these – in the wild. (Photo courtesy of ICF)

But three very long years would pass before even a single wild chick would once again hatch in Wisconsin, and four years before another one hatched and survived. Instead of chicks hatching, what was happening during this time were mounting numbers of “nest abandonment.” Over time it was observed that many pairs, after forming and building a nest together, were suddenly leaving that nest and not returning.

WCEP Studies Nest Abandonments

By 2009 this problem was being actively studied and various hypotheses were put forward by officials of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership – the actual folks responsible for bringing the whooping crane back to eastern North America, and Wisconsin, in particular. These included theories that maybe the cranes were too inexperienced in the wild, or were undernourished, or too stressed by predators, or harassed by biting black flies, or something else.

I don’t think it took long for the biologists involved in closely monitoring the nesting whooping cranes to notice large numbers of black flies on some of the incubating cranes. But it has taken a while for this, and the various other hypotheses to be tested – science, after all, takes its time, and the scientists, understandably, want to get it right.

Are More Bti Treatments the Answer?

However, the citizen scientists and fans of progress for the whooping cranes in Wisconsin – myself among them – who were tuned into the Wisconsin DNR’s Ask The Experts online chat last week, seemed to be expressing a lot of eagerness for a continuation of Bti treatments to reduce the Black fly population. Bti is Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium – considered a good alternative to chemicals used to suppress insects. It was applied in certain areas of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in 2011 and 2012, to see if fewer black flies would result in fewer nest abandonments by whooping cranes.

It seems like it did, in fact, help. Here is a page all about it at the WCEP website. I once saw a picture of a nesting whooping crane covered with nasty looking black flies, and hoped to find and link to it for this post; while my quest for it was unsuccessful, I urge you to look closely at the eggs in the photo on the WCEP page – they are covered with the flies, and seem to tell the story!

At the Ask the Experts event, Davin Lopez, the DNR whooping crane coordinator could only say that the matter is still being studied. But he seemed to promise that a decision will be forthcoming in winter, 2014. The decision will be made by the WCEP partners, but for now Davin offered the opportunity to contact him directly, Davin.Lopez@wisconsin.gov , for those with more question or comments.

10 thoughts on “Will the Whooping Crane Partners Opt for Black Fly Suppression?

  1. After reading this Blog entry I thought you might like to see a petition on change.org that I have brought forward in hopes of pressing “the powers that be” to quit the inner politics and use Bti! I hope that if you see what I see….that Bti is safe, effective and that there is NO reason NOT to use it that you will tell your readers about the petition. That way they can also see the facts and then join us in a unified voice asking for its use! If something isn’t done those magnificent and very endangered Whooping Cranes will be left to just die out at Necedah! And what a very sad thing that would be!


  2. Hi Claire,
    I’m really honored that you’ve stopped by “The Badger & the Whooping Crane”! I remember seeing a story about you and your 3rd graders in the Tampa Times! (Or maybe it was at OM’s Field Journal?)

    While I don’t feel qualified to advocate to others on behalf of Bti treatments, I’m certainly interested in reporting on it – Bti, as well as your efforts . I’ll try to do another post on it soon. They must be making that decision soon. Do you have any info on a timeline for it?

  3. Hi again!
    Getting to teach my 3rd graders about the Whooping Crane and what Operation Migration is doing to bring it back from the brink of extinction is an honor, a privilege and a joy! And I am thankful to teach in a school that allows me the flexibility to do so!

    Thank you for being willing to at least post about the petition. I firmly believe that if people would just look at the evidence and think for themselves that they would see the value in using Bti. After all, I did and I am not a scientist or an expert in any of this! I believe a decision was made this week but that doesn’t mean that a change of mind and heart couldn’t take place between now and nesting time. And at the very least, we continue this in hopes for changes for next year!

    Thanks so much for your reply and interest in what this petition is all about!

  4. Greetings, Claire, re-reading your comment above I see you think a decision has probably been made. I’m not sure how I missed that earlier, but think you’re probably right. I’ll e-mail you via your website later tomorrow (I mean today,I guess), or at some point over the weekend with thoughts, questions regarding a possible post.

  5. Hi,

    I just came across this post. I was following Operation Migration as much as I could in the fall. I didn’t know about how they were doing after migration and independence. Do you know of any updates regarding the black flies and possible “cure” for lack of a better word? Did you post another post about it? Thanks. Deanna (emusingthings.com)

    • Hi Deanna,
      There will be a post here at “The Badger and the Whooping Crane” later in the spring about the whooping cranes’ nesting season in Wisconsin; I’ll do my best to cover all aspects – successes, nest abandonments when & if they occur, possible reasons and remedies, etc.
      There ARE many successes with this program to restore a flock of migrating whooping cranes, as well as bumps along the way that are being managed. I hope you’ll follow along as the story unfolds.

      I enjoy your blog , too!

      • Hi,

        I just saw this. I’ve been involved with putting on an environmental film festival which is ending today! Thanks for the info re the upcoming post. I’ll keep an eye open for it. I’ve been telling people about the whooping cranes and their need last year for new planes and the success story that came out that with people chipping in to help pay for them. Thanks for taking a look at my blog. I’m not the quickest writer as I’m going in several directions but I enjoy sharing my thoughts with people. Take care!

  6. Nesting succes without using Bti was around 3%. Nesting success WHILE using Bti was less than 5%. Success being defined as hatching. That “increase” is most likely just more maturing cranes. There is obviously something wrong. However, these numbers do not suggest Bti is the solution. Before writing a post in support of using Bti, I hope you also interview the biologist at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.

  7. Hi Chris, Any future posts about the nesting season of the cranes in Wisconsin will attempt to include all the data available. It will mention pros and cons about using Bti; it won’t be in support of its use; it won’t be against it either – just that it’s another option being discussed.
    Thank you for stopping here and commenting!

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