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Illinois hunting and fishing

Pictured above are the two young whooping cranes hatched by a crane called 9-03.
Photo by Matt Strausser, ICF Tracking Intern

Stork arrives for whooping cranes

July 12, 2010 at 12:54 PM

LaCrosse Tribune

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - She was a bird with a wandering soul and a roving eye for the boys. Staff overseeing the whooping crane project at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge dubbed her 9-03, as the ninth chick in the 2003 group being trained to follow an ultralight aircraft for the fall migration to Florida.

But 9-03 regularly went rogue, ending up in Michigan, North and South Carolina, New York, even Vermont and Canada. Three times in three years she had to be fetched to rejoin her Wisconsin cohorts, according to Sara Zimorski, a biologist with the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis.

She would pair with three males in the same time period, the last lured away from another female in 2007. That finally seemed to settle her down.

Three springs they nested. Three springs they failed, usually walking away from the eggs, a behavior that baffled biologists. But this year, hope for one of the world’s rarest birds appeared in the nest of 9-03, in the form of two fuzzballs.

The project has seen six chicks hatched this year, after only one previous successful attempt in 2006.

This spring could mark a turning point in the effort to establish a migrating flock of the critically endangered cranes east of the Mississippi River.

Two of the six chicks since have been lost, not uncommon during the “fuzzball” stage when the young are vulnerable to hunting mink, bald eagles, even snapping turtles, said Rich King, supervisory wildlife biologist at the refuge.

One was from 9-03’s pair and could have been done in by the nest mate in the ultimate form of sibling rivalry, King said.

Though four chicks might seem a disappointing tally, King says it’s a respectable showing that should improve in coming years.

“To the casual observer, they might say, Nine years in and only one chick, what’s wrong?’ Nothing’s wrong,” he said.

Whooping cranes are an ancient and long-lived species, with relatively low mortality as adults but slower to mature and, therefore, to breed. The western flock that nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territory has birds more than 30 years old still reproducing.

That longevity means they don’t need to crank out multiple offspring each season like songbirds or waterfowl, but instead can devote their full attention to keeping a single chick well-fed and well-protected, King said. A pair of 5-foot-tall bodyguards, armed with beaks like stiletto heels, can discourage many of the predators that might consider dining on a fuzzball.

The entire population of whooping cranes in the wild numbered 383 in fall 2009, with only another 152 in captivity a grand total of 535, roughly equal to the number of kindergartners enrolled in La Crosse public schools last year.

The Necedah project last fall accounted for about 108 of those wild cranes, compared with 247 in the western flock. Those cranes hatched 52 chicks in 2009, but only 22 survived to leave in the fall for wintering grounds on the Texas Gulf Coast.

“If you do the math,” King said, “we’re doing really good.”

King came to the project in April 2009 to look at the mystery of why the cranes kept abandoning their nests and eggs.

The western population, for decades the only whooping cranes in the wild, had never shown such behavior.

That flock has rebounded after dwindling to only 16 in the early 1940s. Yet having the cranes concentrated at only the two sites in northern Canada and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge area in Texas made wildlife experts nervous. Disease or a natural disaster such as a hurricane or, say, oil spill could deal the species a devastating blow.

So the Necedah refuge in 2001 became host to the first attempt to restore migrating whooping cranes in the eastern United States. The refuge annually has taken chicks from captive breeding facilities such as Maryland’s Patuxent Wildlife Research
Center and the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, usually adding about 20 new birds a year.

Now those “seed crops” of cranes had begun pairing up and seemed ready to make babies yet that wasn’t coming to pass.

It might be black flies, harassing the birds enough to drive them from the nests. But King, looking at data on other wetlands breeding birds like trumpeter swans and loons, believes a bigger factor might be the cranes simply are trying to nest too early.

Most of the first introduced birds had been hatched in captivity in April, so they might be wired to start brooding on the same schedule. Those brought in for direct autumn release a method used since 2005 with the Necedah flock that turns additional captivity-hatched cranes loose with the wild birds and lets the adults lead them to Florida usually had been hatched later and seemed less likely to show the same tendency, he said.

Still, King didn’t see cause for alarm. They’re young, after all, and still learning nesting techniques. One pair that gave up on a nest site in April 2009 waited until May this year. “They’re out with a chick, walking around today,” he said.

“It appears that the population and individuals are adapting,” King said. “Nature always fine-tunes things it just takes time.”

The target for the Necedah refuge flock is 18 successful nests a year and a self-sustaining population of 150 in Wisconsin.
Some restocking likely will continue after that point, so the cranes don’t become too inbred.

The groups involved in the project which include the Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Operation Migration, International Crane Foundation, along with other agencies are working as well on a five-year plan that should be ready by winter, said Louise Clemency, field supervisor for the FWS and co-chairwoman of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

The plan should address the ultralight use versus the direct autumn release technique, or DAR, “a very promising method for us,” Clemency said.

Like other research in tough economic times, the whooping crane project has faced budget cuts and less staff than in past years. Private sources provide at least half of the funding, Clemency said, which also has fallen off.

Yet the project is expected to endure, like the cranes. Seven young birds arrived at Necedah last week for ultralight training, and more will be brought in this month.

“Some of us,” Clemency said, “are excited to see this magnificent bird come back.”

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