It’s the Season! Counting Eggs and Hoping for Chicks

It takes a lot of eggs to make a whooping crane! If that sounds a bit bizarre, please bear with me; I can explain it.

It’s official that out in the fields and wetlands of Wisconsin – around Necedah National Wildlife Refuge – that nesting season is underway. One way or another, happy or sad, there will be news to share.

But for this post, I’m focusing on the eggs – and eventually the chicks – that will be produced by the captive populations of whooping cranes. There are five centers with captive breeding populations that are the source of all but seven of the cranes that have been released by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) into Wisconsin, since 2001, and Louisiana, since 2011. (The seven birds that did not hatch from eggs of the captive population, are cranes that have hatched in the wild in Wisconsin – exciting! But not nearly enough for the flock to survive on its own.)

By far, the majority of captive eggs for WCEP come from the population of whoopers at either the International Crane Foundation (ICF) here in Wisconsin, or Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. The remaining sources of captive breeding whooping cranes are the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada, the San Antonio Zoo in Texas, and the Audubon Center for Research on Endangered Species, in New Orleans.

Eggs Don’t Equal Chicks

One thing you can be sure of if you follow the production of eggs – ICF very helpfully posts an Egg Score Card with their news – the number of new little whooping crane chicks for 2015 will not equal the number of eggs produced. Not even close.

Last year, according to a report at Operation Migration, there were 106 eggs produced from captive breeding that were potentially available for the WCEP programs. Doesn’t that sound like it might be a bumper crop?

Whooping Crane eggs in incubators (Photo couresty Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center)

Whooping Crane eggs in incubators (Photo courtesy Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center)

Well . . . not exactly. From that number only 25 chicks were available for WCEP to divide among the ultralight training program (7 chicks), the parent release program which was new in 2013 (4 chicks), and for the non-migratory flock that is being established in Louisiana (14 chicks). So here’s what happened to all those other eggs: a good many of them were infertile; some were broken by the cranes in their nests, and sometimes chicks that hatch do not survive.

Breeding Whooping Cranes at the International Crane Foundation

From the data provided by WCEP and its partners, I was getting the picture that probably more than half the eggs produced would never become whooping cranes. I needed help understanding this seemingly poor outcome, and Bryant Tarr, Curator of Birds at ICF, was happy to oblige.

“The numbers game with captive produced whooping cranes is always a bit of a guess,” he told me in an email last year. He added that breeding through artificial insemination – necessary “because we wish to control the genetics to avoid inbreeding in this tiny population” – makes the process even more of a guess. (He recently, reconfirmed for me that the info he shared a year ago is “all pretty much the same for this year.”)

Bryant said: “Natural fertility is usually higher. Fertility by artificial insemination usually results in about 50-60% fertile eggs in whooping cranes. And yes, some of the birds break their eggs. This likely happens more in captivity than in the wild and there may be many factors involved.” He suggested though, that wild nests are faced with the threat of predators, which of course are no threat to captive birds, “so there is kind of a wash going on there.”

 A whooper chick that hatched from an egg of the captive population is then raised by disguised and costumed humans, using aids like this puppet-head  of an adult whooping crane. (An International Crane Foundation photo)

A whooper chick that hatched from an egg of the captive population is then raised by disguised and costumed humans, using aides like this puppet-head of an adult whooping crane. (An International Crane Foundation photo)

Bryant added that about 40 fertile eggs were expected from the entire captive flock, but “40 fertile eggs does not equal 40 chicks for release!” he assured me. “You have to figure in ‘hatchability’ the percent of fertile eggs that hatch ( usually close to 80%) and survival after hatch (some young ones just don’t make it) and that is usually about 80% too.”

Count the Eggs and Do the Math

Applying Bryant’s percentages to last year’s count of 106 eggs reveals that the 25 whooping crane chicks that resulted were right on the mark. After accounting for 49 infertile eggs, and 19 broken ones, there were 38 potential eggs from the captive populations in 2014. Figuring that only about 80 percent of them actually hatched, and that only 80 percent of those hatchlings would survive for release, it’s true that approximately two dozen little whooping crane chicks is exactly what you would expect.

Stay tuned for news of this year’s egg totals and the whooper chicks that hatch for 2015. Egg and chicks season is underway, and at ICF the Egg Scorecard is currently reporting that eight eggs, so far, have been laid by the whooper population in residence there. It is too soon to know if 4 of them are fertile. But here are the relevant details on the other four: 2 have been identified as infertile; none are broken; and one has hatched!

I bet it won’t be long before there’s another Egg Score Card report with fresher news – so look for that! And I hope you’ll check back here as well; soon The Badger and the Whooping Crane will report on the eggs, nesting and hatching occurring among the Wisconsin whooping cranes out in the wilderness areas of our state.

An Earth Day Gift for Wisconsin: The Natural Resources Board

The beauty and richness of our natural resources in Wisconsin is one of the things that those of us who live here love about the state. And we like to brag about what we believe is Wisconsin’s long history of citizen input into the management of these resources. We think this sets us apart, and makes us sort of special.

Thus, one of the things that the conservation community in Wisconsin is celebrating today, Earth Day 2015, is the preservation of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Board. It’s a 7-member board of citizens, geographically and professionally diverse, that meets throughout the year, and makes rules and sets policies that help carry out the laws that affect our natural resources. All are volunteers, appointed by the governor and approved by the state senate.

Wisconsin River - photo at Flickr (Used with permission.)

Wisconsin River. (Photo by Jimmy Emerson Used with permission.)

We have a special reason to celebrate it this year. Why? Because since early February the board’s future has been under a cloud – the threat of being rendered powerless by a provision in Governor Scott Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal. The governor’s proposal called for declaring the board “advisory only” and transferring all the powers exercised by the citizen board to a single person – the governor’s appointed DNR Secretary. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters called it “Kneecapping the Department of Natural Resources Board,” and urged its members to press their elected representatives at Conservation Lobby Day (held last week) to reject it.

WLCV members were gratified that many Republicans in the legislature (the governor’s own party) seemed not to like much about the proposal either. In one of its first official acts on the budget the Joint Finance Committee did, in fact, remove that item from the budget bill, calling it a “policy” proposal, not a “fiscal” matter. So the citizen-led board and its citizen-oversight role remains safe for now, and Happy Earth Day!

The Van Hise Rock near Baraboo, WI.  (Photo by Jimmy Emerson, used with permission)

The Van Hise Rock near Baraboo, WI. (Photo by Jimmy Emerson, used with permission)

I wanted to know a little more about how the board works and talked briefly with one of its members, Christine Thomas, who is the Dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. Dean Thomas explained to me that often new “laws are broad, sometimes very general – maybe as general as ‘we must have clean water’ – well in implementing them we have the rule-making authority to say what ‘clean’ is, and to say how this gets done.”

Earlier the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted her extensively on the board’s citizen oversight function. In part, she said the board includes “. . the only people who can stand up for the resource with no tie to money, contributions, gifts, or election. And every decision has to be made in full view of the public.”

Photo by Jimmy Emerson; used with permission.

Photo by Jimmy Emerson; used with permission.

I also wanted to learn more about “Wisconsin’s long history of citizen input” and share that here. Again, I turned to Dean Thomas. She put together a PowerPoint presentation on just this topic and shared it with the other members of the Natural Resources Board in February this year, and you can access it too, at this DNR web page. This is a spirited presentation with some history that goes back to the beginning of the state. It also becomes a discussion of political changes and reorganizations – “as inescapable as death and taxes,” she says – and an explanation of the board at work today. And it’s fun to watch.

You can also read, if you wish for more in-depth history, Dean Thomas’ written narrative, “One Hundred Twenty Years of Citizen Involvement With the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board,” which appeared in the Environmental History Review in the Spring, 1991 issue. She makes a compelling case that citizen involvement has been part of our history – for 150 years, she now contends. She says we are “a state, that more than most, has a long history of environmental interest. . . . The environmental problems have become more complicated and the interest groups more diverse, but the idea of the citizen board has remained intact for most of the state’s history.”


Editorial Note: This is Part 1 of an Earth Day-inspired series which will include a report about the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, (also a target of dramatic changes proposed in the governor’s budget), and this will be followed by a look at the environmental inheritance that all in Wisconsin have received from Aldo Leopold, our very own 20th century patron saint for natural resources.

Migration News: The Class of 2014

Update:  May 22, 2015:       All five of the young cranes of the Class of 2014 have been successfully returned to Wisconsin after weeks of wandering in southern Illinois and western Kentucky. In two action-packed “rescue” missions spread over two weeks, the pilots and crew members of Operation Migration tracked and captured them and returned them to the White River Marsh flight training area, where as young crane chicks they learned to follow the ultralights last summer. There are many good posts, like this one, providing all the details of the “rescues” at OM’s Field Journal.

Drama and mystery: these are the most compelling elements, tightly woven throughout the survival story of the whooping crane species. Most likely they are important elements of every wildlife story as perceived through the imperfect lens of the human eye.

For me, they are the key ingredients that captured my attention for whooping cranes. And crane drama and mystery are never on display more distinctly than during the spring migration of the EMP cranes as they fly back north into Wisconsin.

The Whooping Crane: a source of drama and mystery.[ photo courtesy of International Crane Foundation.]

The Whooping Crane: a source of drama and mystery.[ photo courtesy of International Crane Foundation.]

To begin with, the most-worried-over migration always belongs to that of the youngest chicks – especially the ones that learned the migration route to Florida by following the ultralight aircraft of Operation Migration. As you may know, this year’s OM Class of 2014 included seven chicks, and last fall, they were essentially trapped for weeks-on-end in Wisconsin by weather conditions that made it impossible for cranes and planes to fly together. As winter approached, drastic measures were needed to move them further south with speed, which means they did not fly much of the migration route before Tennessee.

Where is the Class of 2014 Right Now?

Here is a quick synopsis of their fate, thus far into their young lives: five of the seven left Florida, beginning the journey north, a week ago! And fortunately they are in the company of one veteran migrator, Crane #5 of 2012 – an adult crane that liked to frequent the pensite of the ultralight chicks. (Afer all, he, too, had been an ultralight chick just two seasons ago.)

This is just what the crane pros in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) were hoping for – an experienced, adult crane guide to migrate with the Class of 2014, and guide them home! Here is a link to OM’s Field Journal describing the successful beginning of their migration.

But wait! It turns out that it’s not that simple. After 4 flights and 5 days of the journey, the Class of 2014 cranes and their adult crane traveling companion arrived in southern Illinois. Since then the Class of 2014 has stayed on the ground, mostly avoiding storms.

Not long after arriving there, however, adult crane guide, 5-12, took off on his own. The drama of the northward migration of these young cranes has always been intense for all the obvious reasons. But now with the disappearance of 5-12, the mystery of migration intensifies. Where has he gone? Why has he left the youngsters? Is he safe somewhere?

More Whooping Crane Drama to Come, One Mystery Solved 

I wrote above that 5 of the seven cranes left Florida together. But what of the other two? One of the cranes, sadly, has already become a victim of the harsh demands of life in the wild; crane 2-14 was predated in FLorida on the night of March 15th, near her semi-protected winter pensite, at St. Marks NWR.

In late March crane 7-14, proved to be the most adventuresome of the bunch – or maybe she just knows who her friends are. She left on migration in the company of two older cranes that, like 5-12, had also been staying close to the chicks’ winter pensite at St. Marks. Before March ended, crane 7-14, along with 4-12 and 4-13 were positively confirmed back in Wisconsin.

At the end of today, nearly a week after arriving in Illinois, the five other Class of 2014 cranes remain there, “on migration.” What’s next for them? I don’t think anyone really knows . . . so stay tuned!

One part of the mystery of their of migration, though, has been solved: late this afternoon, Operation Migration posted that crane 5-12 has been confirmed back in Wisconsin. But why he took off without the five ultralight chicks, why he continued on a solo journey home to Wisconsin – that will most likely remain his secret – a mystery forever.

Migration News: Spring 2015

As March ends, there is confirmation that well over a third of Wisconsin’s whooping cranes are back in the state. This is a summary of what is known, with links to more information – in case, like me, you always hope for more when it comes to these beautiful big birds.

To begin with, the Cow Pond Whoopers are safely back in Wisconsin! Early in the month – March 7th to be exact – they were the first birds of the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) of whooping cranes to be reported on migration. I’ve recently written at length about this pair of celebrated whoopers, and their volunteer “guardian.” I was thrilled, along with everyone else in the Cow Pond Whooper “fan club” to learn that the transmitter signal for the female, 15-09, of the pair was picked up near Necedah NWR on Mar. 28th (Her partner, 11-09, is assumed to be with her, but he has a non-functioning transmitter, so can’t be confirmed until a visual identification is made.)

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

By now numerous other whoopers have completed migration. An aerial survey of what is called “the core reintroduction area” – in the middle of Wisconsin, where most of the cranes, trained as chicks with the ultralights – was conducted last week (March 24th) by Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan. Bev was able to locate 27 individual cranes, and reported three others that have been confirmed by their transmitter signals. You can see right here exactly which cranes have been documented.

Watching & Waiting for Class of 2014

The “celebrity cranes” of each migration northward are always the youngest – that’s the Class of 2014, this year – the whooping cranes that are making their first journey back north to the territory where they fledged last summer. Always highly anticipated and closely monitored, the return trip to Wisconsin of the ultralight-trained chicks this year is even more intensely awaited because of unusual circumstances that marked their first migration to the South.

It’s a pleasure to be able to say that two cranes of 2014 are already back in Wisconsin. But who are they? And who and where are the others?
First, a quick summary of the chicks that hatched last spring into the EMP:
In addition to seven ultralight-trained juveniles (identified as #s 2,3,4,7,8,9,and 10-14) there is one wild-hatched chick (#w3-14), and three parent-raised chicks.

Parent-raised means what you would expect it to mean – but with a twist. After hatching last spring in the captive population of whooping cranes at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, these chicks were raised by their captive parents until they fledged. Then they were brought to Wisconsin to be released in the wild near adult pairs of whoopers, with the hopes that they would be fostered and would learn to migrate.

Two Migration Stories, With More to Come 

There were four chicks assigned to this new program last spring, and three of them have survived and successfully migrated south with foster-parent pairs. One of them, 19-14 has been observed back in Wisconsin in the aerial survey, as were the foster parent-pair, 39-07 and 7-07. They had led her south to their winter territory in Georgia.

The other 2014 juvenile that was confirmed back in Wisconsin just this week is 7-14, a female who is part of the cohort of the seven ultralight-led Class of 2014. She made the journey in the company of two older cranes, 4-12 and 4-13, who had frequented the pen site at St. Marks NWR where the ultralight chicks are monitored until they leave on migration north.

Five chicks remain at St. Marks NWR. (There would be six but most unfortunately, one of the Class of 2014, fell victim to a predator on March 15.) Those juvenile whooping cranes  who remain are waiting for the urge, or the inspiration,or just the right moment, to take off for the north. Also there is one more adult crane, 5-12, and the pilots and crew of Operation Migration, and their other partners in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnerships, all have high hopes that 5-12 will be the guide that steers these five Class of 2014 chicks safely home for a summer in Wisconsin.