Next for DAR Chicks of 2015: Into the Wild

Eight tall whooping crane chicks that hatched from eggs at the International Crane Foundation this spring were transferred last week to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. This was step two in the process of creating this year’s cohort of Direct Autumn Release whooping cranes. The direct autumn release method is the second method that is used for re-introducing migrating whooping cranes into Wisconsin.

Early Training Days of the  DAR Chicks

In step one, the eight chicks were nurtured and reared from the moment of hatching, at ICF, by humans in white costumes (the same early training given to the ultralight chicks being trained by Operation Migration). The costumed-caretakers carry a very life-like looking whooping crane puppet head, and use a brood call vocalizer and gesture with the puppet head to teach life lessons – like foraging for food – to the chicks.

A whooping crane parent with chick; photo courtesy of the International Crane Foundation.

In this International Crane Foundation photo, a whooping crane parent is teaching its chick how to forage for food;  see how captive-bred chicks learn this survival skill in the photo on the right.

Wanting to understand more about the DAR program, I had an email conversation with Anne Lacy who is ICF’s crane research coordinator. Anne confirmed that ICF is the lead partner for the direct autumn release method. Just as Operation Migration takes the lead for training a cohort to learn migration by following ultralight aircraft,  ICF hatches and rears the Direct Autumn Release cohort. Both ICF and OM are among the nine founding partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).

 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)

Using aids like the whooping crane puppet head in this photo, a costume-caretaker teaches life skills to the little captive-bred chick. Compare this to the “real thing” in the photo on the left.  (Photo courtesy of International Crane Foundation)

Now at Horicon, these eight tall DAR chicks of 2015, are still in the care of costumed caretakers. But they’ll see other wild cranes; sandhill cranes mostly, but their own cousins, the whooping cranes, too, and begin to associate with all of them. In 6 weeks, or 8 weeks, or maybe longer, the adult cranes in this environment will be leaving in groups on migration south. The expectation for the DAR whoopers is that they, too, will begin their own migration in the company of these mature cranes.

Learning to Explore at Horicon 

Anne Lacy, graciously sharing her time and expertise, filled in more details of their training at Horicon:  ” . . .they have a pen for safety with food provided, but they go out and about everyday and explore, and learn to eat the ‘real’ thing! They will be released in a few weeks (beginning of October) and then they will be considered part of the EMP and counted in the population totals.”

The direct autumn release method for teaching migration to whooping cranes that are from a captive-bred population was first tried in 2005. This was after four years of training ultralight chicks to learn the migration route by following the small aircraft. By then between 40 and 50 adult cranes were migrating reliably each fall from Wisconsin and back each spring.

Like the ultralight-trained whoopers, the DAR birds also became reliable migrating adults. There has been a DAR cohort of whooper chicks every year since, with one exception: in 2014, there were only 4 chicks available for the direct autumn release program, and WCEP made the decision to cancel it and allocate the chicks to a non-migratory flock that is being established in Louisiana.

Origin of the DAR Idea

What was the original impetus for experimenting with this Direct Autumn Release method?  Did it all start with ICF, I asked Anne Lacy?  She explained:  “It wasn’t entirely an ICF concept, more of a concept coming from the captive rearing community (of which ICF is, of course, a big part). There have been so many folks involved in captive rearing for release over the years, this method was always one that held promise and ICF was in a position to use it for the releases in Wisconsin.”

Looking at the biographical data for each chick hatched into the Eastern Migratory Population of whoopers (available at The Journey North website), I’ve counted 69 chicks that have been hatched, costume-reared, and then released to the big wide world in the autumn; 23 of those birds are mature, migrating survivors – almost a quarter of the EMP today.

With the release of this year’s 8 DAR birds, hopes are high – as always! – that the bump in population numbers provided by this cohort will be fruitful and long-lasting. And, as always, with creatures that live in the wild some will thrive and some probably not, but hopes remain high for now, for each and every one of them!

The Chicks of 2015: DAR, Parent-Reared, and Ultralight Chicks

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.]

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

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

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 . .”

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)

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.


Just Hatched! News about the Whooping Crane Chicks of 2014

Hard to believe , but it’s been almost a month since The Badger & the Whooping Crane last posted about the 2014 whooping crane nesting season and the hatching of chicks. Now I’m happy to report that chicks have been hatching all over the place!

A 5-day old whooping crane chick! (Photo by Damien Ossi, courtesy of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

A 5-day old whooping crane chick! (Photo by Damien Ossi, courtesy of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

They are hatching at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center  where some of the incubating eggs become the chicks that will be costume-reared and trained to follow the ultralights to Florida, (see a link below to learn more about these chicks);

and at the International Crane Foundation where some of the chicks will be costume-reared and eventually released at Horicon NWR where they will learn the migration route from adult cranes (see a link below for more information);

and – partially answering the burning question of the 2014 nesting season – chicks have been hatching in the wild.

All but two of the 100 (approximately) adult cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) started life as chicks hatched from incubated eggs produced by the captive populations of whoopers at either ICF or Patuxent. The population has successfully and steadily grown to 100 birds from those sources. But now the task for the EMP is to become self-sustaining – reproducing itself. Only two adult birds in the EMP (W#1 of ’06 and W#3 of ’10) at this time have been hatched in the wild, from within the population.

So how are EMP cranes doing this year at the task of hatching chicks? Pretty well, it seems (though it is too soon to know about the ultimate survival rate of the chicks). The Badger and the Whooping Crane posted on May 14th that the first wild chick of the year had been reported, and updated that news on May 15th with a report of two more chicks.

Then on May 16, the International Crane Foundation posted what seemed amazing news to its Facebook page: “Seven wild chicks!” Here is that Facebook post:



It got even better that same day when Necedah National Wildlife Refuge posted on Facebook the news that refuge biologists had witnessed “not one, but TWO whooping crane chicks at the nest of parents 13-03 and 9-05! W1-14 and W2-14, . . .” These whooping crane parents were the first pair of cranes that had been reported with a chick earlier in the week. Here is that post:



You can follow all the news about the chicks at Patuxent that will be trained to fly with ultralights at the Field Journal of Operation Migration. Training has already begun for the just-days-old tiny whooping cranes, and the OM Field Journal includes regular posts of their progress, their personalities, and often their too-cute-for-words pictures!

Visit the International Crane Foundation’s Egg Score Card page to read updates about the eggs produced from ICF’s captive population, as well as the results of aerial surveys of the wild population. The most recent aerial survey was conducted May 28, and revealed five crane families with one chick each; 3 more families (one chick each) were not observed at all.


News briefs: All about May, and more

Look here, at the end of every week, for a collection of short news items and links to stories, events, and issues regarding Wisconsin’s whooping cranes, conservation issues, get-outdoors opportunities, and, perhaps other nature-based happenings.

Eastern Migratory Population Update

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has issued the newest population update for the EMP, a period covering March 1 to April 30, 2014. It finds, “93 birds in Wisconsin, 4 not recently reported, 1 suspected mortality, and 3 long-term missing” for a possible maximum of 101 cranes.

The Badger & the Whooping Crane had focused earlier this spring on the return of the youngest cranes to Wisconsin, the ones making their first, unaided migration north, and is happy to report now that three more have been accounted for since that earlier report. The International Crane Foundation posted on its Facebook page that DAR chick, Mork, has been reported in Green Lake County, and the newest WCEP Update reports the two parent-reared chicks, # 22-13 and #24-13 back in the state.

May is American Wetlands Month

See the website of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association to learn why wetlands matter. Or visit their Facebook page to see the many reasons to explore a wetland: “Reason #1: Wetlands are watershed workhorses.” And if you happen to have any great wetland photos you’d be willing to share, email them at

May is “Magnificent whooping Crane Month” at the Patuxent Research Refuge

A series of free public programs at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland are planned as a celebration in May of Magnificent Whooping Crane Month. Migration stories will be shared by Brooke Pennypacker one of Operation Migration’s ultralight pilots, as the headline attraction for Saturday, May 17th. All the events (check them out at the Magnificent Whooping Crane Month link!) will be held at the National Wildlife Visitor Center, part of the Patuxent Refuge complex.


The 2014 Door County Festival of Nature, May 22 – 24

The Ridges Sanctuary is hosting the 12th annual Door County Festival of Nature. The celebration for 2014 will take place May 22, 23, and 24, and includes such diverse opportunities as a full-day birding outing on Washington Island, a chance to study lake ecology aboard a Great Lakes research vessel, a tour of the uninhabited, and usually-inaccessible Plum Island, and a tour of the certified-organic Waseda Farms.

The International Crane Foundation Celebrates Three New Honors

The Jerome J. Pratt Whooping Crane award has been presented to ICF Founder George Archibald by the Whooping Crane Conservation Association. ICF’s Dr.K.S. Gopi Sunder was one of five conservation biologists in India to receive the Carl Zeiss Conservation Award, and the International Institute of Wisconsin is presenting its Corporate Citizen Award to ICF on Saturday, May 3rd.

Home Again! The Rookie Whooping Cranes That Came Back to Wisconsin

Six special whooping cranes were observed last Saturday, back home in Wisconsin. They are part of the “Class of 2013” – the 8 juvenile cranes  taught the migration route last fall by Operation Migration’s ultralight pilots. This is a victory, and  a sweet one. But it comes with a side of bittersweet, too.

Every whooping crane that returns here in the spring migration is a cause for celebration, but none more so than the youngest, still-juvenile, cranes; the ones that migrated south for the first time in the fall; the ones that had to learn the migration route from a surrogate parent of one kind or another. For eight of them that surrogate was the pilots and ultralight aircraft of Operation Migration. These eight, flew north as a group, leaving their wintering site in Florida Monday morning, March 31st.

A 2009 photo of cranes following an ultralight; by Tim Ross; at Wikimedia Commons.

A 2009 photo of cranes following an ultralight; by Tim Ross; at Wikimedia Commons.

Operation Migration, with the help of signals from radio transmitters banded to the cranes, reported on their whereabouts several times along the way; always with the speculation, but never with certainty that the group of eight was traveling together. This group of young whooping cranes, unlike some, “seemed to be a rather tight knit group, ” wrote OM’s Heather Ray at the group’s Field Journal. So when six of the eight arrived back in Wisconsin, where were the other two?

Efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins when the colts are very young. (USFWS photo)

Efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins when the colts are very young. (USFWS photo)

The answer of course, is the bitterwsweet part of this story. Before the six returnees were confirmed in print, OM had to break the sad news earlier this week that once they (OM) continued to receive radio signals for crane #1-13, still coming from Kentucky, they feared something bad had happened to her.

The “something bad” was most likely a collision with power lines, a theory that developed from checking Google Earth at the co-ordinates for the signal; clearly visible was “a transmission tower supporting several power lines.” The crane’s body was retrieved by volunteers for OM on Sunday. One more Class of 2013 ultralight crane–a male, #3-13–remains unaccounted for, but the OM crew is confident, for now, that he will be located alive and healthy somewhere soon.

In addition to the eight young ultralight-trained cranes in the Class of 2013, there are 4 other juveniles to watch for. These complete the 2013 cohort, and include two that were among the “costumed-reared” chicks, hatched and raised at the International Crane Foundation for Direct Autumn Release.

These cranes were released into the wild at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge to learn the migration route from experienced cranes. There were 9 of them released in October , but only 2 have survived into 2014. The smallest crane of this group, a female called Latka, has been positively identified in Wisconsin, in a photo posted to ICF’s Facebook page on March 19th. The most recent information I could find for Mork, the second surving DAR crane, is from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s February 28th Update.  Mork wintered in Tennessee, began migration in mid-February, and was reported in Jackson County, Indiana on February 19th.

This photo from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership clearly shows the difference between a juvenile and adult whooping crane.  By the time they complete their first migration back to Wisconsin most young cranes have very few cinnamon colors left.

This photo from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership clearly shows the difference between a juvenile and adult whooping crane. By the time they complete their first migration back to Wisconsin most young cranes have very few cinnamon-colored feathers remaining.

The final two juvenile cranes in the 2013 cohort were hatched and reared by their captive whooping crane parents at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Research Center in Maryland. In late September they were brought to Wisconsin, and released at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in the vicinity of adult whooping cranes, in hopes they would bond and travel south with established whoooping crane pairs.

Indeed, they did so. Here’s where they were most recently observed:  crane #22-13 was last reported, in WCEP’s update, in Washington County, Indiana, in late February. And a March 4th photo on ICF’s Facebook page shows the other parent-reared juvenile (#24-13) with its foster crane parents in Hopkins County, Kentucky where the threesome spent the winter.

In all there were 21 whooping crane chicks hatched in 2013 and reared in one of the surrogate parent programs described here. The goal, of course, is that they all become adult whooping cranes in the wild, as part of the Eastern Migratory Population. But only 11 remain.

It goes without saying that the wilderness life these creatures are intended for is hard and fraught with  uncertainty. Death from predators, disease, and accidents is a constant companion of this program that seeks to restore a wild population of whooping cranes that nests in Wisconsin and migrates to the southern U.S. It makes those that do survive all the more treasured, and explains why each scrap of good news about this endangered species is joyously celebrated.