Today and next week, The Badger & the Whooping Crane will feature a post about each of the three “chick populations,” of 2015. These are the captive-bred chicks, (not to be confused with the wild-hatched chicks that are the central goal of this project). These are the chicks which continue to be the foundation of the whooping crane reintroduction into Wisconsin.
They can currently be divided into 3 distinct groups, each named for the method used to release the chicks into the wild. First are the “ultralight chicks,” that learn to migrate by following ultralight aircraft. Second are the “direct autumn release” chicks, and the “parent-reared” chicks are the newest group.
Here’s a bit of the history of the reintroduction, and the evolving release methods: It all began in 2001 with 10 captive-bred chicks that were being reared, first at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, then at Necedah NWR in Wisconsin by mute humans in white costumes. The little chicks quickly learned to follow the costumes wherever they went, eventually following them into the air behind the small ultralight aircraft they piloted.
From the Class of 2001 to Today
One of the 10 ultralight chicks of that first year was injured in early training and was removed to the New Orleans Zoo. Another died just before the migration began, and a third died in a windstorm during the migration. Two more died in Florida after completing migration – predated by bobcats. On April 9, 2002, the five surviving birds of the Class of 2001 left Florida together on their first unaided migration north. Ten days later, April 19th, four of them arrived in Wisconsin, at Necedah; the fifth whooping crane arrived solo, two weeks later. Every year since, there has been a new class of ultralight chicks, ranging from 6 to 20 birds, to rear, and train, and eventually to release as free, wild whooping cranes.
[Ed. note: It’s because of the educational website, Journey North, that I can share all those biographical details about the Class of 2001; bios are kept there for every crane in the Eastern Migratory Population.]
If you follow the progress of the ultralight classes, over time it seems like each one acquires a personality or a myth-like story of its own; some for the cooperative nature of the birds, some for just the opposite, and some for unpredictable conditions like last year’s impossible migration weather.
So far, the Class of 2015, a small one with just 6 birds is distinguishing itself by the eagerness and trainability of these young birds. You can follow every detail of their training at The Field Journal of Operation Migration (the ultralight trainers!); here is just one of many more. This summer’s posts have been punctuated with remarks about the Class of 2015 like this: “They are SUCH a good class!” and “All six are doing incredibly well . .”
They seem to be an “Incredible cohort!” How nice is that?
Two More Release Methods
By 2005, with four classes of now-adult whooping cranes migrating to Florida and back on their own, a second release method was attempted. It was one that involved releasing captive-bred, costume-reared chicks directly into the wild near adult cranes – both whoopers and sandhills – in hopes that these “Direct Autumn Release” chicks would follow the lead of the adult cranes on migration. (This group, the DARs, will get a post of their own next week.)
Then just two years ago a third method for rearing and releasing whooping cranes chicks was experimented with and it has yielded some positive results. Chicks hatched at Patuxent by adult whoopers are raised by those parents until the chick is a well-established fledgling. Beginning in 2013, four such chicks were brought to Wisconsin and released near adult whoopers who – it was hoped might – foster them. The parent-reared chicks, too, deserve a post of their own, and it’s coming.