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!