MADISON, Wis. – Whooping Cranes returning to Wisconsin this spring have achieved two important milestones toward establishing a self-sustaining flock of this ancient and endangered species in eastern North America.
A pair has nested for the first time at White River Marsh Wildlife Area, marking a welcome expansion of nesting range in Wisconsin and providing an important backstop to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, where most of the returning cranes have nested to date.
And another pair of cranes nesting in Necedah claimed the crown of the first nest in Wisconsin resulting from a released ‘parent-reared’ bird, a bird reared by a parent crane in captivity, not by costumed human caretakers.
“We are so pleased that Whooping Cranes are expanding and taking advantage of this previously unutilized suitable nesting habitat, so we do not have all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak,” says Trina Soyk, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who co-leads communications for the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) leading the restoration project.
“And we are very excited about the first nest from a parent-reared Whooping Crane. Both of these are important milestones, and we are cautiously optimistic about the future of these pairs and the direction of our efforts toward helping achieve a self-sustaining population.”
Since reintroduction efforts began 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 have adapted their management to reduce human interaction with the captive-reared birds. They hope to raise more attentive birds and thus reduce chick mortality once the captive-reared birds become parents, as chick mortality has been one of the factors limiting the growth of the flock. Partners also started releasing birds in White River Marsh and in Horicon Marsh six years ago to expand nesting territory and escape black flies that were bothering the cranes and leading them to abandon nests in some years at Necedah.
White River Marsh’s “Royal Couple” now streamed live on Crane Cam
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource pilot Beverly Paulan spied the nesting couple on White River Marsh earlier this month during a weekly aerial survey and confirmed the nest again during subsequent flights. The nesting pair, known as the “royal couple” because they were the first pair to form in White River Marsh, are female #3-14* and male #4-12, with the second number indicating the year in which the cranes hatched. The cranes have been a pair for two years and spend their summers in Wisconsin’s Green Lake County and their winters in southern Georgia. Both cranes learned a migration route by following ultralight aircraft.
Joe Duff, chief executive officer of Operation Migration, one of the WCEP partners, says the nest, which began April 7-9, is in an ideal location deep in the marsh. “Of course this is just one pair, it’s their first time nesting, and one of them is still young,” Duff says. “But to say we are cautiously optimistic would be an understatement. In truth, we are as excited as the kids in the ticket line at a carnival!”
The “Royal Couple” is involved in another “first:” their nest is being monitored by “citizen scientists” and many other online observers on a live-streaming video camera recently set up by Operation Migration. “This is the FIRST TIME EVER that a Whooping Crane nest has been monitored by camera 24 hours a day, seven days a week!” Duff says. View the Royal Couple nesting at https://www.youtube.com/c/OperationMigration/live.
Parent-reared crane nest
The DNR pilot also found the first nest by a parent-reared bird at Necedah during the same survey flight she found the White River Marsh nest. That nest results from a pair including a parent-reared bird from 2014, the second year in which birds raised at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, were raised by adult cranes.
The refuge biologist recently checked on the nest and found it contained no eggs. This is fairly common for a pair’s first nest, so no one is discouraged; instead, the team is looking forward to next year when this pair may produce its first fertile egg(s), says Glenn Olsen, the veterinarian at Patuxent.
“The parent-rearing research project is designed to produce released whooping cranes that have spent more time with adult parent birds than is possible with our traditional costume rearing techniques,” Olsen says. “We have been hopeful that this will produce adults that are better parents to their chicks, and are happy that one of our first parent-reared releases now has nested. We look forward to next year when this pair may produce its first fertile egg.”
Through the efforts of WCEP, there are now 104 Whooping Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population. Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 600 birds in existence, approximately 445 of them in the wild. Aside from the 104 Eastern Migratory Population birds, the only other migratory population of Whooping Cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada, and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migratory flock of approximately 12 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region, and an additional 58 non-migratory cranes live in southern Louisiana.
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 at https://www.fws.gov/midwest/whoopingcrane/sightings/sightingform.cfm