Guest Author: Sharon Peregoy, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Our minds this time of year are filled with anticipation. The first whooping crane chick is due to hatch very soon. This is what we work so hard for all year and preparations start long before the start of the breeding season. Actually, we begin getting ready for next year’s chicks as soon as the ultralight flock goes to Wisconsin and the chicks reared for Louisiana are sent south in the Fall. The chick buildings must be cleaned up and closed for the season, incubators and hatchers shut down, fields and pens that have been left to grow (for fear of disturbance to the chicks) are mowed.
We evaluate the year’s breeding season and make plans for the next year. Our sandhill cranes assist with the incubation of whooping crane eggs which allows the whoopers to lay more eggs. We evaluate how they incubated their own eggs and that will determine who gets to have whooping crane eggs next season. The flock manager (Jane) makes plans for artificial insemination (AI) on our whoopers based on the fertility from natural breeding. AI begins around the end of March and will take place 3 times a week for the duration of the egg laying season.
Sandhill cranes and whooping cranes here at Patuxent require year round care. Each bird is checked every day to make sure all is well. As of today, our whooping crane flock has 26 pairs, and 22 single birds (74 birds). We also have a flock of 116 sandhill cranes that in addition to incubating whooping crane eggs also provide us with valuable information through various studies. The information we collect directly relates to the work we do with whooping cranes and may help us to make improvements to the project as we move forward.
A lot of work goes into maintaining a healthy flock of whooping cranes. These are the birds from Patuxent (along with those at our partner institutions) that will produce the chicks for release. Every crane gets an annual health exam prior to the start of the next season. Their pens are inspected and repairs are made to feed sheds, waterers, shade shelters, fencing and netting.
One of my favorite things to do at Patuxent (aside from raising chicks of course) is crane dating. Single birds that are old enough to reproduce are introduced to their prospective mate. Mates are chosen according to genetics. We need to make sure that the chicks they may produce for release have the best genetic diversity possible. Sometimes it is love at first sight, but often the potential pair may need to live as neighbors with a fence between them to get used to one another. We look for behavioral signs of acceptance or aggression. If the pair looks amicable then we will allow them to have a supervised “date” with us being the chaperone. The male is allowed to go in to the female’s pen and we watch. First for an hour at a time, then maybe they spend the day together, then an overnight. It can take months and up to a year to get a single pair living comfortably together.
Before we know it the spring peepers are peeping and breeding season is here. Maybe that new pair will lay their first egg this year! Time to get the incubators up and running, get the chick buildings clean, heat lamps hung, puppets ready, costumes repaired, and an endless check list of to dos. The AI team has started making the rounds. Many things to do! Checking for eggs in pens and hoping you will be the one to find the first whooper egg. Candling the first whooper egg with all fingers crossed. Yay! It’s fertile! Now we know when the first chick is due. OK now it’s real! Before we know it, the calendar is full of due dates and chick season is in full swing. One day runs into the next and then it’s time to send the ultralight chicks to Wisconsin and the Louisiana chicks will be sent south in the fall and then we start again. How lucky we all are to have such a job.
The Patuxent Crane Crew includes:
Jane Chandler (flock manager)
Ed. note: our sincerest thanks and appreciation for all you do each and every day!