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First wild whoopers hatch in 2015; record nests spur hopes of more young

NECEDAH, WI – The first wild whooping crane chicks have hatched in Wisconsin and are lifting hopes that a record number of Wisconsin nests may yield more chicks this year and increase the chances they’ll survive and eventually help build a self-sustaining population of endangered whooping cranes in eastern North America.

A chick hatched on May 3 and at least three more hatched over the Mother’s Day weekend, all at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. More chicks are expected to hatch in the coming weeks, potentially adding up to one of the best years given a record 31 nests in Wisconsin this spring, according to reports by researchers using airplanes and ground observations to monitor nests.

“We are cautiously optimistic, knowing that for these young birds, the next few months and years of their life will be perilous,” says Heather Ray, Director of Development for Operation Migration. “We hope that greater numbers may increase the likelihood that some of these young whoopers will survive to adulthood and ultimately contribute to a self-sustaining population of this endangered bird.”

Whooping cranes were a fixture in North American skies and wetlands for millions of years but verged on extinction in the 1940s due to hunting and habitat loss. To reduce the vulnerability of the remaining flock that migrates between the Texas Gulf Coast and Canada, U.S. and Canadian partners came together to establish a second migratory flock. After an initial failure at an Idaho wildlife refuge in the 90s, the partners chose Wisconsin as the home site.

Through releasing young birds in Wisconsin over the past 14 years, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has succeeded in meeting interim numerical goals for the flock – 100 birds – and breeding pairs – 25. Partners also have overcome many of the challenges to a restoration effort that one U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official said was “the wildlife equivalent of putting a man on the moon.” Costumed handlers have successfully raised the young birds and taught them to migrate for the first time to Florida behind an ultralight so they learn the route and can return in spring on their own. In more recent years, some of the released birds have followed older birds for their first migration.

The whooping cranes have successfully selected habitat, formed breeding pairs and produced eggs. But they haven’t yet become a self-sustaining population. Many of the eggs have failed to hatch, and of those that have hatched, the chicks often haven’t survived until the birds are old enough to fly.

“With this effort, we’ve been able to get farther down the path of building a self-sustaining population than ever before,” says Davin Lopez, who coordinates Department of Natural Resources whooping crane efforts.  “We’re encouraged by what we see so far this year, and we will continue to work with partners to identify and address bottlenecks to achieving our main goal of building a self-sustaining flock.”

Lopez says that partners have identified and implemented ways to mitigate nest abandonment by birds chased off their nests by black flies. Also, for unknown reasons, black fly numbers during this year’s nesting season are currently well below average, all factors coming together in the potential for more successful nesting.

Researchers will continue to carefully monitor the nests and young in 2015 by plane and on foot. They also will conduct other nesting studies this spring and try to unravel why young hatchlings are not surviving by investigating predators and other direct sources of mortalities at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Lopez says.

What to do if you see a whooping crane

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, Inc., 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.

Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project’s budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.

To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP whooping crane observation webpage at: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/whoopingcrane/sightings/sightingform.cfm.

Contacts: Heather Ray, 920-573-0905, heather@operationmigration.org, Doug Staller, 608-565-4400, Doug_Staller@fws.gov