Coming soon to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership: newly-hatched crane chicks!
The eggs are being incubated (gathered from whooping cranes in the captive populations at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the International Crane Foundation); add to that the good news that paired whooping cranes in the wild are sitting on nests in both Louisiana and Wisconsin. Those who work professionally on behalf of the whooping crane species, and those who just love them from afar – all are collectively holding their breath, waiting to see what the immediate future for whooping cranes is going to look like. Will the coming year be filled with more hopes than worries? Or the other way ’round?
For starters, the number of chicks hatched in captivity, then costume-reared, will once again be split among 3 different release programs: a group that will be trained to fly with the ultralights of Operation Migration, another group for Direct Autumn Release, and a third group that will be released with the new non-migrating flock in Louisiana. While there is always the hope for a bountiful crop of chicks to be shared by all three programs, there is also the real possibility that each program will have to settle for less than the hoped-for number of chicks.
The true hope for WCEP is represented by those cranes building nests in the wild – they’re the key to WCEP’s main goal of establishing a new, self-sustaining flock of wild whooping cranes. They are also the cause of so much of the breath-holding and anxiety regarding the breeding season for the Eastern Migratory Population of whoopers.
Over the years, the EMP whooping cranes have engaged in an impressive amount of nest-building in Wisconsin, but with little to show for it. According to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, only 29 chicks have been hatched from the more than 100 nests built since 2005, and few of those hatched chicks have survived. The WCEP partners are engaged in various studies, including a recent effort at Bti suppression of black flies (in 2011 and 2012) which have been seen harassing the nesting cranes, and a just-launched 3-year intensive study of the whooping cranes’ nesting habits at Necedah NWR.
Hopefully, successful breeding seasons will soon result, as the WCEP partners discover more answers. I asked WCEP co-chair, Peter Fasbender, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officer based in northeastern Wisconsin, about this, and he told me, via email:
“Wisconsin whooping cranes are doing some things well. Their survival rate is good. Their migration patterns are well-established in both spring and fall. They appear to arrive back in breeding territory in good physical condition as indicated by what appears to be normal courtship, breeding, and nesting habits.”
Then he added: “Here is where whooping cranes begin to have issues. While many are successful in laying eggs and initiating incubation, very few make it to egg-hatching phase. Black fly emergence during the incubation phase contributes to failure in this area, but our study has shown this is only part of the problem.”
Peter Fasbender had more to say about nest failure, and what WCEP is doing this year, instead of more black fly suppression. The Badger and the Whooping Crane will cover this and include more information about the pesky black flies, in a second post about the 2014 nesting season next week.
I’d be remiss, though, not to mention right now two especially newsworthy nests that are being watched for chick hatchings: in Louisiana, the newly reintroduced non-migratory flock has a pair of 3-year-olds that are sitting on a nest with two eggs. The prospective crane parents are young to successfully raise a chick, and it’s possible that the eggs are not fertile. But the nest was first observed in late March, so if a chick is to hatch from it, there will be headlines about this very soon.
And in Wisconsin, another pair of 3-year-old cranes appears to have a nest in the White River Marsh release area. Operation Migration announced it earlier this week on their Facebook page. The project to train young chicks to fly with the ultralights of Operation Migration was moved from Necedah NWR to this release area in 2011, and these cranes are from the first class trained in this new location. The nest at White River Marsh is a “first,” and a very exciting development for the 2014 breeding season!