Breeding Season Produces History-Making Wisconsin Wild Chicks

Wisconsin Whooping Crane
The second-generation chick shown here is one reason the 2017 breeding season is one for the history books. Photo courtesy Beverly Paulan

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

MADISON, Wis. -( A history-making breeding season is winding down for whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population that summers in Wisconsin, yielding a dozen fuzzy, cinnamon-colored chicks that are the latest and most hopeful signs yet for efforts to build a self-sustaining flock of whoopers in eastern North America.

One of the chicks is a second-generation wild bird; the offspring of the first wild cranes hatched in Wisconsin following the start of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership restoration project in 2001.

The project aims to establish a second migratory flock in North America to be a backstop to the other migratory population of whooping cranes that nests in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and winters on the Texas Coast.

“We’re encouraged by the recent successes in the core project area and hope they are trends that continue in the future,” says Leann Wilkins, acting refuge manager of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.

The second-generation crane was hatched by the very first wild hatched chick in the flock. “These second-generation chicks are absolutely critical to helping build a self-sustaining population,” Wilkins says.

Davin Lopez, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation biologist, says another crane chick hatched this spring is significant for its parentage: its mother is the first to successfully nest from among those birds that were raised in captivity by adult cranes, not humans in crane costumes, before being released to the wild.

“The idea is that having cranes, not costumed caretakers, rear the chicks would produce cranes that would later be better, more vigilant parents themselves,” Lopez says. “And now we have a chance to test the idea to see if parent-reared cranes are indeed better parents.”

Reducing chick mortality is seen as a key to establishing a self-sustaining flock because wild whooping cranes have so few chicks to begin with, Lopez says. The cranes typically lay two eggs, and it is very common for only one to hatch and for one to none to survive to fledging.

Whooping crane chicks require 80 days to fledge, meaning to have the ability to fly and be able to escape predators themselves.

“So far, our oldest chick is 48 days. So that chick, and the other 11 still on the landscape, still have a long way to go to fledge, and that’s important to keep in mind. But they’ve beaten the odds so far and the 2017 breeding season has been a big success in many ways,” Lopez says. “We are very happy with the results so far, we are cautiously optimistic for this next “chick” phase, and we think what we’re seeing on the landscape shows we’re heading in the right direction.”

Since the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership began reintroduction efforts in 2001, the population of Whooping Cranes in this eastern flock has gone from zero to more than 100 birds but is not yet considered self-sustaining.

To reach that status, partners are adapting their management to try to reduce chick mortality. They are reducing human interaction with some captive-reared birds, hoping that by having cranes, not costumed humans, raise the chicks the chicks will pick up valuable lessons that will help them later be more vigilant parents.

Other tweaks include raising some chicks using costumed handlers but transferring those chicks from captivity into the release areas earlier so they have more time to adapt; along these lines, seven birds now being raised in captivity will be arriving in Wisconsin this week and will be raised in an enclosure at White River Marsh in Green Lake County for eventual release.

WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards; remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle any closer than 100 yards. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view or photograph whooping cranes.

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members are the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.

To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP whooping crane observation webpage.

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