Whoopsie’s Capture & Relocation Provokes a Controversy

A hybrid crane chick known as Whoopsie was captured this week by staff of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and removed from eastern Wisconsin to the Milwaukee County Zoo, where it awaits transfer to its new home at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The chick – officially called a whoophill, is the result of a successful pairing in the wild between a male whooping crane and a female sandhill.

The pair and their chick were first observed at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in late May. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) issued this statement July 22nd: “Leaving the hybrid whoophill on the landscape does nothing to supplement the Eastern Migratory Population or further recovery of the species. . . .” In fact, they say, it just creates more problems for the EMP since it removes a valuable whooping crane from the breeding population. And the chick could – in theory, at least – grow up to mate with a female whooping crane, thereby removing a breeding female from the population.

The dad of Whoopsie proved to be a vigilant father and helpful mate, protecting the chick from predation. WCEP ultimately hopes to separate the pair and re-introduce this successful whooper dad to potential whooper mates.

Many “Facebook Critics” Post Objections

This news has not met with a lot of applause. As soon as it was posted at the Facebook pages of WCEP and some of its partners (Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundations) the negative comments flared up.

From comments at ICF’s Facebook post:

“This is sad, sad news and I am terribly disappointed with ICF. Let nature take its course.”

And “Breaking up a bonded pair is cruel and so is placing that baby into captivity. Disgusted.”

But there are also defenders of the decision:,

“Both birds will re-pair and the whoophill chick will have a good life. I see it as something that must be done – it yields the best outcome for the eastern population.”

Confusion: Who Are the Whooping Crane Partners

What has also emerged in some of the comments was a confusion about who to “blame” for this unpopular decision. Some commenters suggested their support of ICF and OM would not continue. It’s easy to understand the confusion – there are so many partners involved in this extremely complex effort to restore a population of long-gone migrating whooping cranes into the Wisconsin to Florida migration corridor.

An early post here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane – Meet the Partners for Whooping Cranes – explains the WCEP partnership, which includes ICF and OM. And some of the commenters themselves took pains to explain that this was a partnership, pointers others in the thread to WCEP’s website so they could learn about all that are involved.

Still More “Facebook Critics”

But the comments at WCEP’s own Facebook page were uniformly critical of the action. Here’s an example:

“This makes me sick. Let nature takes its course. To take the chick away from its parents and then to spilt up the bonded pair after that! Leave them alone.” And, “I disagree with your decision. I support everything you do to protect the flock, but sometimes things should just be left alone.”

There was criticism at Operation Migration’s Facebook page, as well:

“I don’t like this at all.” And, “Let nature take its course. He chose his mate. Let him be.”

And, “But it is another thing to “play God,” deciding to break up what has occurred in nature and incarcerating a living creature when the gain (preventing the possible loss of a breeding bird) is both iff-y and of small consequence in the grand scheme.”

Defenders, Too, of a “Tough and Unpopular Decision”

Some commenters get very long-winded, and are – not surprisingly – very passionate, with what seem to me, to be good reasons to “just let them be wild;” and to use this opportunity to study this pair in the wild.

But at “the end of the day” – which means, in this case, after perhaps too much time spent among the comments – I’m going to let my head overrule my heart and go with this sentiment:

“I understand why, and I agree it needs to be done, but it is still so sad. . . star-crossed pair that they are.” And: “. . . sad, but definitely understandable. Hopefully the plan will work and more whooping cranes will be the result!”

It also helps, I thought, that the defenders of this decision and the professionals who made it also made a case for the fact that Whoopsie will lead a good life at Patuxent. Captivity at a wildlife research center, it was suggested, should not be equated with a caged life in a zoo.

So that’s what I think about this “tough and unpopular” choice. How about you? What do you think?

Whooper News from Wisconsin

What’s new with whooping cranes in Wisconsin? How is the newest generation of whooper chicks? Where are the cranes from the Class of 2014? Here is a round up, beginning with the announcement of an award to the International Crane Foundation which recognizes the excellence of their work within their captive breeding program.

ICF’s Well-Earned Plume Award

Two Plume Awards are presented each year by the Avian Scientific Advisory Group – part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariams. The awards are for “Noteworthy Achievement in Avian Husbandry” and another for “Long Term Propagation Program.” The International Crane Foundation received this year’s Plume Award for the Long Term Propagation Program.

Calling the prestigious award “a feather in our cap!” ICF issued this statement: “Our talented husbandry staff spend long hours caring for our flock, including late-night egg checks, unexpected veterinary calls, and daily care in the heat of our Wisconsin summers through the cold of winter. They do it because of their dedication to our mission . . .”

Personally I can vouch for having experienced that dedication through the prompt and patient answers I have received to every question – no matter how elementary – posed to Curator of Birds Bryant Tarr, (and many others at ICF) for posts here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane.

Whooping crane caretakers with chicks following; at the Itnerantional Crane Foundation .  (Photo by ICF staff)

Whooping crane caretakers with chicks following; at the Itnerantional Crane Foundation . (Photo by ICF staff)

From Captive Flocks to Wild Whoopers

Most whooper chicks that hatch each year from the captive flocks are isolation-reared – meaning they will be nurtured and trained by humans (not their whooper parents). Silent humans in white costumes will train them to forage, lead them to water, and help them survive, all with the goal of ultimately releasing them into the wild. Ten chicks have hatched from the captive flock at ICF this year, and another 15 have hatched at the other major captive breeding center – Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.

Most of these whooper chicks will be allocated to three programs that release captive-bred cranes back into the wild. A few may be retained by the captive flocks because their particular genetics will be valuable to the breeding program.

Among those allocated for release, some will go to the effort to establish a non-migrating flock of whooping cranes in Louisiana, and others to the Eastern Migratory Population of whoopers via the Direct Autumn Release method (they learn to migrate by associating with adult cranes). Still others are released to become ultralight-trained chicks that learn the migration route by following the ultralight aircraft of Operation Migration from Wisconsin to Florida.

Training Now in Wisconsin: Six Chicks for 2015

A group of six chicks that will be forever known as “the class of 2015,” are in the ultralight training program this year. Although 7 were “officially introduced,” at Operation Migration’s Field Journal in mid-June, crane #3-15 has been “rerouted” to the New Orleans flock.

Like all the ultralight chicks before them, training for the six in the Class of 2015, began even before they hatched at Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center. Sounds made by an ultralight engine were played near the incubating eggs to get the chicks inside those eggs accustomed to the sound. After hatching they were trained, first to follow the human handlers in white costumes, that teach them the basics, and then train them to follow ultralight “trikes,” which are the aircraft minus it’s wing.

From the archives: Operation Migration's efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

From the archives: Operation Migration’s efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

When the cranes grow mature and tall enough (they can grow fast – up to an inch a day is possible) they are shipped to Wisconsin. That occurred July 2nd, this year; as always, Windway Aviation, of Sheboygan Falls, WI, generously provided their transportation from Maryland to Wisconsin.

So flight training has now begun in earnest. Once that happens it’s not unusual for older whoopers – “graduates” of this program – to return to White River Marsh and watch the new chicks with a certain amount of interest and curiosity. This year crane 4-12 and sub-adult 3-14 (you can read more about her below) have been constant visitors for the past 10 days.

The Wild Chicks of 2015

Chicks hatched in the wild by the adults of the Eastern Migratory Population is the goal, and this year’s nesting season was a truly wild and happy one – 22 chicks were hatched – far more than any other season. But once hatched, the vulnerable chicks face tough survival odds. As of this writing only 3 are currently still reported, via aerial surveys, to be surviving. That’s sobering news, yet not unhopeful. Depending on which year you look at, 3 surviving wild chicks is 1 or 2 – and even 3 – more than usual for this time of year. If 3 are still surviving to fledge a few weeks from now, an important new record will be made.

And Where are the Members of the Class of 2014?

Always of interest: checking up on the sub-adults – the yearling cranes that were the subject of all the angst associated with their training and migrating and surviving throughout the previous year. Five of this year’s six sub-adults were transported back to the White River Marsh area in crates from the middle of Illinois after two drama-filled rescue missions. That all happened between early and mid-May.¬†So what happened next?

There was no mention of any of them again until the next official Update issued periodically by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. On May 28th, WCEP reported #3-14 alone in Washara County, just north of White River Marsh, but in late June she was reported in the company of older crane 4-12, and currently that duo is making repeat visits to the runway at White River Marsh, and the training sessions of the class of 2015.

Crane 4-14 (also known as “Peanut”) was listed as “location unknown” on the late May WCEP report, but was sighted close to White River Marsh several times in mid-June. Flockmate 7-14 was the sole Class of 2014 crane to migrate all the way from Florida to Wisconsin. She did so in the company of older cranes (4-12 and 4-13), and has been observed from time to time associating with 4-13 near Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.

Cranes 8,9, 10 of the Class of 2014 were reported to be doing spring wandering through various Wisconsin counties, a behavior described by Operation Migration as “common among sub-adults.” Cranes 9 and 10 were observed near White River Marsh in mid-June. By late June WCEP was reporting that 8-14 had wandered as far as northern Illinois.

In summary, the six survivors of the Class of 2014 (there had been seven, but one died in Florida back in March), are alive and well in, or near, Wisconsin. They are engaged in typical sub-adult behavior, and from what’s being reported, it seems that two of them (3-14 and 7-14) may even be forming pair bonds with older cranes. This is good.

 

Whooping Crane News from Near and Far

From Washington, D.C. to far northern Canada to Wisconsin’s fields and wetlands, here’s news about whooping cranes from all over. Beginning with the far away:

In Canada

Friends of the Wild Whoopers has a new post about nesting season for the whoopers of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, which occurs later than ours in Wisconsin. These whoopers, migrate much further than the ones that return to Wisconsin every March and April. They complete their 2,500 journey from Texas to far northern Alberta in late April and early May.

There are about 300 individual cranes in the population, which has very slowly climbed back to this number from an all time low of only 16 birds in the winter of 1941-42. Their numbers today – still solidly in the “endangered” category – are yet so encouraging! Always important to remember: the AWB flock is the only surviving original flock of wild whooping cranes, and thus, the sole source of all the whooping cranes in the world today. That is around 600 birds, including those in the wild and in captivity.

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada where the only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer.  (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada where the only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer. (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

But about the flock’s current nesting season: 68 nests were counted in an aerial survey conducted at the Wood Buffalo National Park over four days near the end of May, Friends of the Wild Whoopers reports. It will be August before there is a follow up survey that reports the number of surviving chicks. Certainly a good number of surviving chicks can be hoped for from 68 nests!

While this certainly sounds like a good number of nesting cranes, this is not a record. Friends of the Wild Whoopers reported there were a record-breaking season last summer – 82 nests; before that the record was 76 nests in 2011. FOTWW reports that drought in the region may be a contributing factor to lower numbers this year.

At the U.S. Supreme Court

An appeal of “the whooping crane case” which put fresh water rights for endangered species on trial in Texas will not be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal district court in Houston had earlier found that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was responsible for the deaths of 23 endangered whooping cranes in drought-stricken Texas during 2008 and ’09 – and thus, was in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Last year the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans threw out the lower court’s 2013 decision.

Now the Supreme Court has declined to reconsider the case, but Dr. Richard Beilfuss, president of the International Crane Foundation, praised “the multi-year legal process” for helping to bring the issues surrounding “a healthy coastal ecosystem for both Whooping Cranes and people” to many in Texas and throughout the nation. While expressing his disappointment, Dr. Beilfuss, ICF president and a water management specialist, said “we remain steadfast in our commitment to safeguard the future of the Whooping Crane and address their irrefutable need for clean water.”

In Congress: the Endangered Species Act Could Be at Risk

The Endangered Species Act, which is certainly a most important U.S. law for the survival of the whooping crane was recently called “the most powerful environmental law on earth,” by Dr. Chritina Eisenberg, the lead scientist for Earthwatch Institute. Despite that – or maybe because of it – the ESA now faces “the gravest assault it has ever faced,” from the Republican-led U.S. Congress.

Not long ago the bald eagle, a beloved symbol of America, was an endangered species. The bald eagle was removed from Wisconsin's endangered list in 1997, and from the federal list in 2007. (USFWS photo)

Not long ago – due to habitat loss and use of DDT – the bald eagle, a beloved symbol of America, was an endangered species. The bald eagle was removed from Wisconsin’s endangered list in 1997, and from the federal list in 2007. (USFWS photo)

Blogging at the Huffington Post, Dr. Eisenberg named seven separate Senate bills aimed at “reforming” the ESA, and 3 House of Representative bills that would remove protection from gray wolves. In addition she warns that “myriad insidious riders have been attached to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016, which was recently passed by the House of Representatives. She described it as a 934 page document with riders “literally buried in the bill,” including one that would halt recovery efforts for the sea otter, and many that also threaten other benchmark environmental laws.

Overall she described this as “a smoothy orchestrated effort to gut the ESA . . .We’ve made enormous national conservation policy inroads since the 1940s,” she writes, “but we risk losing all we have gained.”

And In Wisconsin: a Whoophill

It has happened before, but this is a first for the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes: a male whooping crane and female sandhill crane have mated and produced a chick. This is the first successful nesting activity of any whooping crane in the vicinity of Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, and the hybrid chick and its blended family is a great curiosity for all craniacs.

The chick is officially known as a Whoophill, and has unofficially been given the oh-so-cute name of “Whoopsie.” You can learn more about “Whoopsie” from the International Crane Foundation which has explained that such pairing of two different species happens routinely among various species in the wild, but is “still a rare event overall.” And do visit Operation Migration to see some great pictures of this successful family – in particular, the very attentive whooper dad.