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.


Migration News: Spring 2015

As March ends, there is confirmation that well over a third of Wisconsin’s whooping cranes are back in the state. This is a summary of what is known, with links to more information – in case, like me, you always hope for more when it comes to these beautiful big birds.

To begin with, the Cow Pond Whoopers are safely back in Wisconsin! Early in the month – March 7th to be exact – they were the first birds of the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) of whooping cranes to be reported on migration. I’ve recently written at length about this pair of celebrated whoopers, and their volunteer “guardian.” I was thrilled, along with everyone else in the Cow Pond Whooper “fan club” to learn that the transmitter signal for the female, 15-09, of the pair was picked up near Necedah NWR on Mar. 28th (Her partner, 11-09, is assumed to be with her, but he has a non-functioning transmitter, so can’t be confirmed until a visual identification is made.)

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

By now numerous other whoopers have completed migration. An aerial survey of what is called “the core reintroduction area” – in the middle of Wisconsin, where most of the cranes, trained as chicks with the ultralights – was conducted last week (March 24th) by Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan. Bev was able to locate 27 individual cranes, and reported three others that have been confirmed by their transmitter signals. You can see right here exactly which cranes have been documented.

Watching & Waiting for Class of 2014

The “celebrity cranes” of each migration northward are always the youngest – that’s the Class of 2014, this year – the whooping cranes that are making their first journey back north to the territory where they fledged last summer. Always highly anticipated and closely monitored, the return trip to Wisconsin of the ultralight-trained chicks this year is even more intensely awaited because of unusual circumstances that marked their first migration to the South.

It’s a pleasure to be able to say that two cranes of 2014 are already back in Wisconsin. But who are they? And who and where are the others?
First, a quick summary of the chicks that hatched last spring into the EMP:
In addition to seven ultralight-trained juveniles (identified as #s 2,3,4,7,8,9,and 10-14) there is one wild-hatched chick (#w3-14), and three parent-raised chicks.

Parent-raised means what you would expect it to mean – but with a twist. After hatching last spring in the captive population of whooping cranes at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, these chicks were raised by their captive parents until they fledged. Then they were brought to Wisconsin to be released in the wild near adult pairs of whoopers, with the hopes that they would be fostered and would learn to migrate.

Two Migration Stories, With More to Come 

There were four chicks assigned to this new program last spring, and three of them have survived and successfully migrated south with foster-parent pairs. One of them, 19-14 has been observed back in Wisconsin in the aerial survey, as were the foster parent-pair, 39-07 and 7-07. They had led her south to their winter territory in Georgia.

The other 2014 juvenile that was confirmed back in Wisconsin just this week is 7-14, a female who is part of the cohort of the seven ultralight-led Class of 2014. She made the journey in the company of two older cranes, 4-12 and 4-13, who had frequented the pen site at St. Marks NWR where the ultralight chicks are monitored until they leave on migration north.

Five chicks remain at St. Marks NWR. (There would be six but most unfortunately, one of the Class of 2014, fell victim to a predator on March 15.) Those juvenile whooping cranes  who remain are waiting for the urge, or the inspiration,or just the right moment, to take off for the north. Also there is one more adult crane, 5-12, and the pilots and crew of Operation Migration, and their other partners in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnerships, all have high hopes that 5-12 will be the guide that steers these five Class of 2014 chicks safely home for a summer in Wisconsin.