PRINCETON, Wis. (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners announced that this year’s whooping crane hatchlings from several re-establishment programs are ready to attempt migration.
The programs to re-establish the flocks of endangered whooping cranes use a variety of methods to raise the chicks and help them learn to migrate, including the use of puppets, costumes and ultralight aircraft.
Whooping cranes are iconic North American birds. Male birds are about five feet tall when standing erect, and as such are the tallest birds on the continent. Adults are snowy white except for black or gray bands on their wings, black bristly feathers on the head and neck, and a crimson cap on the top of the head. The birds emit a loud single-note call when alarmed, which is thought to account for the birds’ common name.
The birds live in the wild in three locations and in captivity in 12 sites. Whooping cranes approached extinction in the 1940s due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss, Fish and Wildlife said. There are currently less than 600 wild and captive whoopers, according to the International Crane Foundation.
Because cranes normally learn to migrate from the previous generation, captive raised chicks are at a disadvantage. Six young cranes hatched earlier this year at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., are training to fly behind an Operation Migration ultralight aircraft. That flight could take up to 16 weeks depending upon weather conditions. Joe Duff, co-founder and chief executive officer of Operation Migration, said the hatchlings now training with ultralights “are very attentive to the aircraft and currently can fly for up to 30 minutes at a time.”
The International Crane Foundation will release eight captive-raised chicks at Wisconsin’s Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in October with the expectation that they will make the migration south with wild adult whooping cranes. Three birds hatched in captivity at Patuxent and raised by captive crane parents are to be released at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin this month to hopefully follow migrating adults in October.
Baby birds will imprint on humans, so captive-bred chicks are fostered by people wearing full crane costumes or using hand puppets that look like adult cranes to avoid that problem.
“We’ve achieved a lot of milestones with the class of 2015 and are hopeful these young birds can make it safely to their wintering grounds and help us build the flock,” Davin Lopez, a conservation biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said.
Due to U.S. and Canadian conservation efforts, a self-sustaining flock of around 300 birds now migrates between Texas and Canada. To reduce the population’s vulnerability, a second migratory flock was attempted in Idaho, but when that attempt failed, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership chose Wisconsin as the summer site for the flock and succeeded in building up a migratory flock of nearly 100 birds using the innovative methods for raising whooping cranes and teaching them their migratory routes.
“We’re seeing a lot of positives and we’re learning a lot about reintroductions that will not only help the Eastern Partnership project but will also help the efforts in Louisiana to establish a non-migratory population of whooping cranes there,” Lopez said.More study is needed to understand threats to chick survival, such as predators, and black flies, which caused nest abandonment in past years, according to Lopez. Global warming could also threaten the cranes’ fragile recovery, as decreased rainfall and drought shrink their Canadian wetland habitat and provide land predators easy access to nests, while having negative impacts on the birds’ own prey, Earth Justice said in their fact sheet.
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