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.


2 thoughts on “Whooper News from Wisconsin

  1. Indeed – especially the Class of 2014 since their fall migration, so compromised by the weather, could not adequately teach them the full migration route. They’ll be watched closely when fall migration comes round again, I know.

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