Front Row Seat

Monitoring these tawny colored juvenile cranes so closely each day provides opportunities to watch their interactions and antics.

The two Whooping cranes I’m watching are 31-16 & 38-16. It’s easy to tell them apart at this point because the younger, #38-16 is darker than his buddy #31-16. Yes, they’re both males.

And yes, they do like to rough house from time-to-time. Especially after a snooze and when it’s windy. Conditions were just right yesterday so I snapped away while they had fun.


The older #31-16 started by leaping at getting into 38-16’s face.


And not just in his face but on his back.


and over his back…


The younger (and darker) #38-16 took exception and hollered at his buddy.


Then he began to jump and leap.


and performed the perfect jump rake!


Anyone who has ever gone to sea in a sailboat knows what it’s like to be “becalmed.”  The wind that propels the boat forward and gives it purpose suddenly drops away leaving it and all aboard floating around like a fishing bobber that’s somehow broken its tether, completely at the mercy of current and tide. “A painted ship on a painted sea…”

And so on day 28 of “The Adventures of Mutt and Jeff,” we continue our daily vigil, sitting in our van/blind watching the two young protagonists pretty much do what they did yesterday and the day before and the day before that, as if caught in some kind of time warp. The windshield has become a TV screen with the channel locked on a test pattern as the world of the chicks explodes with all the drama and excitement of drying paint. In fact, it is all we can do to suppress our involuntary squeals of excitement as the chicks traverse the windshield from one splattered bug to another. Gripping Drama! And it takes more than a little bird expertise to discern where today’s episode ends and tomorrow’s rerun begins. Could it be the fates have secretly placed us unwittingly in syndication?

The set of our little “Truman Show” is a very large corn field already nuked by combine and disc. At bird height, this harvested field is vast and no doubt stretches from horizon to horizon, bordered to the north by cranberry bogs and wetlands. Most of the waste corn has already been consumed by the large numbers of sandhill cranes, ducks and geese that moved on two or three weeks ago. And of the four adult crane pairs that earlier frequented this field, only 24 & 42-09 still show up though not every day and not for the last four days. The temperatures have been much warmer than normal and higher than average rainfall has protected the neighboring corn fields from harvest.
Meanwhile, Mutt and Jeff wonder about, exploring their new world with the innocence and wonder of infant aliens. Foraging occupies most of their waking hours and their beaks lead them on their daily journeys across and around the field. Fortunately for us, their tawny brown plumage of adolescence is giving way to inevitable adult white, making them as easily visible as chalk on a black board against the dark, disc’ed soil. Their every move is easily observed even hundreds of yards away.


Mutt, #29-16, is older than Jeff, #39-16 and therefore much whiter and the first to catch the eye. In fact, of the nine Patuxent parent reared chicks, Mutt is the oldest and Jeff is the youngest. Big brother and little brother. Little sister, #34-16, was predated two weeks ago, having met the same sad fate as 32 & 37-16 released in Outagamie and Juneau Counties respectively. And in this case, Big Brother really does seem to know best.  Mutt leads and Jeff follows. Mutt is far more alert and wary than Jeff. More independent and… macho.

Visiting Sandhill’s quickly learn just how sharp his beak can be and quickly learn to move aside at his advance as hundreds of Canada geese look on with indifference. It is Mutt that stands transfixed with a Charles Manson-like gaze at select intrusions while goose hunters and their guns’ loud reports are not even worthy of his glance. Nor are low flying military jet aircraft. And the threats that suddenly flush clouds of nearby geese and Sandhill’s into the morning sky do not phase either of them. They simply adhere to the mantra that innocence is bliss.

Unfortunately, the situation holds no bliss for us… especially when we arrive every morning well before daylight to find our little pair roosting in this ag. field, completely exposed and doing their best imitation of coyote bait. They must have slept through that most important of all classes, “Water Roosting Made Easy for Dummies.” And with ideal wetland roosting opportunities only a hundred and fifty yards away, it makes us more than a little crazy that they don’t use it.  In fact, each morning when we arrive, we are absolutely amazed that they have made it through yet another night. The local coyotes must be unionized and out on strike. Or perhaps God really does protect drunks and little children… and young whoopers. One can hope.

But the situation is not without hope. Both Mutt and Jeff are becoming better and better fliers. When first released, their attempts at flight were comical. They would periodically leap skyward as if by accident, their wings clawing the air for the first time as they did their finest imitation of a pair of spastic spiders that had accidentally fallen into a swimming pool. But in the days that followed, little by little they improved as their short flights in ground effect built their confidence and ability. “So this is what these wings are for”! you could almost hear them exclaim. Slowly but surely they have added to their “Frequent Flier Miles.” In fact, yesterday morning, they flew more than two miles and back. It wasn’t exactly an Atlantic crossing, but it was progress.

As far as “Adoption” by adult whoopers goes, I’ll save this subject for my next update. Suffice it to say no luck yet. But we take solace in the fact that of the 11 chicks released, of which 8 are still alive, only one chick has possibly been “adopted” by adult whoopers so far.  But we haven’t given up hope.

And so our fingers, toes and all other available appendages remain crossed as we continue to squeeze every bit of luck out of the universe with the hope that Mutt and Jeff will eventually “get it” and take their place as worthy and competent citizens of the natural world. Just how this will happen is very much up in the air, but whatever happens, we will be here to report and document it. Stay tuned.

Now, will somebody please turn on the fan!

The Things we do for Whooping Cranes

Monitoring Whooping cranes has its interesting aspects. You get to watch the interactions between adults and chicks and their daily comings and goings. Despite the legions surrounding the call of the wild and the freedom of flight, we have learned that the life of a wild bird is actually very boring.

Still, there are enough surprises and unexpected changes to keep us entertained. Some times I feel like a spy, sequestered in the truck staring through binoculars while listening to the beep of James Bond surveillance equipment and capturing photographs to augment my report to HQ. I told you I was bored.

For a while we followed the drama of 5-12 who spends summers here. After losing a mate late last fall, he finally caught the eye of 8-14 this summer. They were together until 4-13 lost his mate in Marquette County and came over to steal his.

Poor, dejected 5-12 hung around for a while but after being dumped twice, likely decided it was time to migrate or at least get a head start. He is currently in Columbia County, WI.

Maybe in bird society, migration is more than just a way to find warmer weather and a fresh food supply. Perhaps, when the pressures of poking in the same old mud get to be too much, migration is like a biannual, social cleansing. You don’t have to suffer those awkwards encounters with old girlfriends and the men they chose over you. Just check your built in compass, spread your wings and head south. New latitude, new peer group. I told you I was bored.

Meanwhile, his old mate (8-14) and her new boyfriend (4-13) are still hanging around. Often I get  strong signals from them at the same roosting site used by the parent reared chick (30-16) and his new alloparents (4-12 & 3-14). For a few days now I haven’t been able to find them during the day. Nor did Wisconsin DNR pilot Mike Callahan get a hit on them when he flew over mid-morning on Wednesday.

As well as visual contact and locations for most of the birds, Mike also reported some sad news. He spotted the carcass of female number 1-15 in Rock County, WI.

If you followed our migration last year, you may recall the struggle between females 1-15 and 2-15. Both were dominant females with opposite personalities. Number 2-15 was quirky with a short attention span who bopped all around the aircraft, disturbing the order we worked so hard to establish. Number 1-15 was her self-appointed disciplinarian and at least once, brought the flock back to the aircraft when number 2-15 led them astray. She was my favorite bird. Damn!!

Our ambition this year is to concentrate on parent rearing. Part one took place at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and at the International Crane Foundation here in Wisconsin where the chicks were raised by real Whooping crane parents.

Part two happens in the field where the chicks are released in the company of experienced Whooping cranes, which we hope will teach them the ways of the wild and how and where to migrate.

That is a lot to ask of what could be a short interaction. The chicks are still young and impressionable and would normally not be on their own for another five or six months. Additionally, Whooping cranes are not colonial birds like Sandhills. They don’t gather in large flocks and are therefore less accepting of strangers. If the chicks don’t integrate with their own species, the next best option is that they go with Sandhills, who at least could teach them safe roosting practices and what to be fearful of. At worst, they could identify with Sandhills leading to confusion when it comes time to breed.

For now though, our job is to spend hours recording how much time they do, or don’t spend in the company of their target pairs.

Each evening Colleen and Brooke silently encourage their chicks to follow the adults and take solace in the few times they do. For twenty or so entries on a data sheet, they sit in the van for 10 hours a day plus the hour long ride back and forth from camp.

The female of the target pair assigned to the chicks Heather and Jo are monitoring was lost to predation. The male is the nemesis of 5-12 mentioned above so their two chicks are on their own.

They are picking good habitat and finding lots of food, plus they both carry GSM transmitters that provide their exact location every day. Because there is no chick-adult interaction, other than checking on them a few times a day there is not much need for full-time monitoring.

Number 30-16, the chick I am watching at White River Marsh, is spending most of the time with adults 4-12 & 3-14. They roost in an isolated spot deep in the marsh and spend their days on private lands to the west. Mostly I just hear their beeps coming from the same location and record that they are together. The male, 4-12 has a non functioning transmitter (NFT) so occasionally I trek in to get a visual or watch them leave to confirm he is actually still with them. So far, so good.

In fact, this association seems to be the only one working as it should.

If you actually get to watch the birds it can be interesting but that does not always happen. NPR is no longer a diversion with all the political rhetoric so most days are spent working on computer stuff punctuated by beep-beep-beep.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Our young Parent Reared Whooping crane colts have been practicing their flight abilities quite a bit over the past two days.

Yesterday, we watched them take to the sky five times in 3 hours and just moments ago, they set off on a 6 minute flight over the area before returning to their favorite foraging field.

Whooping cranes 31 & 38-16 in flight. Photo: H. Ray

Home Alone

When I was a kid, there was a story going around school about a kid in the next town named Henry who was always getting into some kind of trouble. Then one day, Henry returned home from school to find a note on the front door of his now completely empty house which said, “Henry. Have a nice life.” Seems that Henry’s parents, for reasons never quite clear to us, had moved away to a new beginning, leaving poor Henry to make his own way through life. How could his parents do such a thing, we wondered?

The whole affair suddenly filled the dark peripheries of our imagination with the dancing gnomes of doubt and uncertainty, causing a short, collective breath hold at the completion of each subsequent journey home from school as our eyes scanned the front door for a note.

Three weeks ago in Adams County as we swung open the pen door to “soft release” #29 and 39-16, I thought of Henry’s parents as yet another chapter began in life’s saga entitled, “Yesterday I Couldn’t Spell It. Today I Are One.”

Number 34-16 awaited outside the pen in the field having been “Jack in the Box Hard Released” the day before. Also in the field were some “target pairs” of adult Whooping cranes, which we hoped would “adopt” all or at least one of the chicks.  In fact, three of the four different “target” pairs of adult whoopers that frequented this ag field looked on. But alas, the chicks demonstrated not the slightest interest in the adults and the adults reciprocated as all of our hopes for a much anticipated “Kodak Moment” were dashed.  It felt like we were sitting in a multiplex movie theater and as the movie began, we suddenly realized we were in the wrong theater. Not exactly the reception we had hoped for.

Still, it’s like they say, “Hope springs eternal.” For someone like me, who shaves every morning in front of a fun house mirror, whose ringtone is the theme from “Twilight Zone” and whose five favorite movies are “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and its four sequels, my expectations were already reasonably tempered and shielded against reality’s inevitable assaults, firmly placing such disappointments in the realm of the expected.

All of this was more than three weeks ago. Since then, Colleen, with the help of Dr. Glenn Olsen and Robert Doyle from Patuxent, Doug Pellerin and myself, have spent 10-14 hours a day, every day observing the chicks in this ag field so that they would be protected as much as possible and so there would be no future questions in anyone’s mind as to what actually did and did not happen here.

No adoptions have as yet taken place although target pair 24 & 42-09 does visit to forage most days, female #34-16 was lost to predation… probably a coyote like the one that predated 32-16, and the two remaining chicks, AKA Mutt and Jeff, continue their adventures in and around this ag field while hunters, harvesters, and trappers continue to use their property.

We take solace, however, in the words of the late, great New York Yankee Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” There is still time for a happy ending and we’re not about to give up yet. We’ll continue to maintain our “full court press” intensely observing and documenting the saga of Mutt and Jeff, and will share their adventures with you periodically in the Field Journal so that we can all take this ride together. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy a little company now and then?

Just ask Henry!

Crane colts 29 & 39-16 attempt to fly off to roost with adults 24 & 42-09. Photo: D. Pellerin

Crane colts 29 & 39-16 attempt to fly off to roost with adults 24 & 42-09. Photo: D. Pellerin

Pin the Tail on the Crane

Tracking birds with a handheld receiver and yagi antenna can be a lot like playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey – at least the blindfold part.

There are a lot of factors that complicate the game. We often stop by the side of the road, dial in the frequency of the bird you are looking for and sweep the antenna over your head, trying to pick out the beep from a background of static. Often though, you find yourself standing directly under power lines which increase the background noise. All the electrics in the truck also adds a bit of interference so with each stop, I shut it off.


VHF transmissions work on line-of-sight which means the signal emitted from the transmitter on the bird’s leg travels directly to the receiver you are holding. However, just like vision, it does not pass well through trees, buildings or over hills. Those obstacles reduce the range but they can also bounce a signal so the bird may not always be in the direction the antenna is pointed.

Here, around the marsh, the signal is usually only good for a mile at best. Still there are times when you can pick up a beep a long distance off – depending on what is between you and the object of your search. By the same token, the bird could be in a valley close by but radio silent. Or it could be standing in water which covers the antenna on its leg. The bird might also be airborne, which increases the transmitter range, making you think you are right on top of it when in fact, its across the marsh.

With practice you learn to second guess the receiver and play a game that’s half electronics and half technique – with a good measure of dumb luck added in.

At least with the other game, the donkey and the tail you’re trying to pin on it, are both in the same room… And you usually get to eat cake afterwards.

More Volunteers Shine Bright!

St. Marks and St. Vincent volunteers and staff accomplished a lot during the annual workday at the whooping crane pen yesterday.

Cleaned up after hurricane Hermine and repaired top net and fencing. Hurricane Hermine made landfall at 1:30 a.m. Friday, September 2nd near St. Marks in Florida’s Big Bend, packing 80 mph winds as the storm crashed ashore.

Thanks to everyone that worked on the pen site yesterday!

Amazing Student Volunteers!

Guest Author – Mako Pellerin

Mary O’Brien, Doug and I visited the Princeton school on Sept. 30 to extend our sincere appreciation to the Princeton School student volunteers, art teacher Miss Corrie Mussell and Ms. Sue Kinas for all of their hard work and dedication on the Giant Origami Whooping Crane project featured at the Whooping crane festival.

The key to success of this project was the involvement of teachers and student volunteers who gave their time and talent to help us achieve this unique way of paying tribute to the Whooping cranes that summer in the Princeton area.

The first time I met the 10 volunteer students on the day of the event, I gave brief instructions about the many steps and sequencing involved in folding the giant crane…

Mako uses a small model to show the students how the much larger crane will be folded.

Mako uses a small model to show the students how the much larger crane will be folded.

Prepping the HUGE origami crane for display on the stage.

Prepping the HUGE origami crane for display on the stage.

I was very impressed to discover that the students knew just exactly what they were expected to do without any prior practice. They expressed significant enthusiasm and energy while staying focused on the tasks needed to accomplish our goal. Several of the students and teachers also stayed to help place the giant crane on the stage and do the finishing touches.

Thank you to the amazing student volunteers, Miss Corrie Mussell, who also conducted the T-shirt art contest for this event, and Ms. Sue Kinas for contributing time and effort to this project.

Thanks, student volunteers and teachers – we couldn’t have done it without you.


The finished origami crane featured a wingspan of 37 feet!

The finished origami crane featured a wingspan of 37 feet!

Paying it Forward

We’d like to introduce you to a very special young family from Marquette County, Wisconsin.

In mid-September we approached them to ask permission to erect a release enclosure on their farm so that Parent Reared Whooping crane #31-16 could be placed inside. You see, two adult Whooping cranes; male 4-13 and female 7-14 had been spending time foraging in their field, along with hundreds of Canada geese and a handful of Sandhill cranes.

This young couple agreed and the next day the pen was setup and the young crane was moved there from our White River Marsh pensite. Very soon after, the adults showed up and immediately showed interest in the young crane chick inside the enclosure.

What happened over the next couple of weeks can be learned by reading back in this Field Journal but little did we know that this amazing family had their own story to tell. One of hope – and caring and of paying it forward.

Please watch this video and read their story. If, afterwards, you’d like to help young Lilah’s family with her medical bills – send James Henke an email ( and tell him the Whooping cranes sent you.

Kestrel Returned to the Wild

Anyone who has been following our work over the years has no doubt heard the name Pat Fisher. ‘Fisher’ as she prefers to be called is a licensed bird rehabber and operates The Feather – home to a number of raptors and Sandhill cranes currently receiving care. I first met Fisher on the observation tower at Necedah NWR in the fall of 2001. She’s been a friend since.

Those that have attended the Princeton Whooping Crane Festival no doubt attended Fisher’s presentation with a number of birds on the glove.

Today, this remarkable woman visited us here at White River Marsh and brought with her a young-of-year American kestrel, which had just been banded and was ready for release after being in Pat’s care since the end of June.

Joe Duff got to do the honors, while Jo-Anne and I captured photos. Enjoy!

Pat and Joe position the young kestrel in preparation for release. Photo: H. Ray

Pat and Joe position the young kestrel in preparation for release. 


Pat warned that the young bird was a biter.

Away she goes!

Away she goes!

And off she flew... There are a number of these small falcons in the area so we hope she'll be accepted by them readily.

And off she flew… There are a number of these small falcons in the area so we hope she’ll be accepted by them readily.


The Saga that is #5-12

WARNING – I’m about to anthropomorphize.

I’d like to give Whooping crane 5-12 a hug. I think he needs it. I would.

He’s had another mate stolen from him.

It seems male 4-13 who, along with his previous mate female 7-14, was minding two of the Parent Reared crane kids in Marquette County has decided that love is more important than playing ‘Dad.’

For almost two weeks the Marquette County ‘target pair’ showed up each day and spent the entire day with 31 & 38-16. They foraged together. Snoozed together. Flew together. Each evening they would all take to the sky and circle the large field. Each evening the young cranes would land and the adults would carry on to their familiar roost location some 3.5 miles east.

On September 30th, only the male 4-13 returned. He stayed for about a half day before leaving. Same story the next day. On Sunday, October 2nd, he appeared at 7 am and began calling – over and over – he called. He left at 11 am and never returned.

That evening, I watched 31 & 38-16 fly off the field to a great roost location for the first time… Alone. It was actually one that 4-13 and 7-14 had used previously.

The next day, as Jo-Anne and I drove around after our crane chicks who had finally discovered the art of flight, we heard from Bev Paulan, who was flying over the area looking for the remains of 7-14, that she had just watched 4-13 whoop 5-12’s butt and try to steal his girl, 8-14 at White River Marsh!

The next day, Joe saw 5-12 with 8-14 and we all cheered. Unfortunately, it was short lived. Male 4-13 has been with 8-14 every day since and we’ve not seen or heard the beeps of male 5-12 since last Friday.

So, yes, I’d like to hug 5-12…

The new couple: Male #4-13 on the left and female #8-14. Photo: H. Ray

The new couple: Male #4-13 on the left and female #8-14. Photo: H. Ray

Meanwhile, 31 & 38-16 continue to do well, despite not having an adult Whooping crane with them. Each morning we locate them roosting on a lovely little wetland a couple miles from their release field and they’ve been flying quite a lot during the day and foraging in nearby fields.

Parent Reared Whooping cranes 38-16 in the foreground and 31-16. Photo: H. Ray

Parent Reared Whooping cranes 38-16 in the foreground and 31-16. Photo: H. Ray


Dr. Jane Goodall changed our perception of animals when she showed the world that chimpanzees used rudimentary tools and had complex social structures. Corvids have learned to use car traffic at intersections to break tough nutshells, while herons have been documented stealing pieces of bread from tourists to bait fish. With continued research, the line we have traditionally used to define the difference between humans and the rest of the animals we share the planet with, has moved. We now understand that they communicate more than we imagined and that they feel and express some degree of emotion. Just ask any pet owner.

Unfortunately, our overwhelming tendency is to apply human values to the animal world. Beatrix Potter and Walt Disney taught us that they are simply furred or feathered version of ourselves.

So engrained is that inclination that researchers use the term anthropomorphism to describe attributing human characteristics to animals. Depending on who you talk to, that anthropomorphic line can move from one extreme to the other; from dressing poodles in tutus to eradicating entire species that we consider a nuisance.

As researchers, we attempt to be objective. It is easy to say that the birds where happy in the pen when in truth, we have no idea whether they were happy or not. With a little discipline, we report instead that there were no recognizable signs of stress.

When you work closely with animals, it is difficult to maintain that objectivity and you catch yourself relating to their experiences in your own terms.

As a pilot, my big indulgence is thinking how it would feel when I, as a bird, finally discovered the purpose of those odd appendages sticking out the sides of my body. I instinctively flap them when I run but that’s more for balance than anything. No one has yet told me to be patient, that soon I will use them to fly. What’s fly?

Then one day when I am full of energy and the wind was blowing in my face, I ran forward and for some unknown yet unquestioned reason, I flapped those seeming useless wings and suddenly…

Airborne for the first time, was I afraid of heights? Did I panic when I looked down from altitudes never before experienced?  Or was it all as natural as it looks to people stuck on the ground?

How does 71-16 feel? She was raised at ICF by protective, yet captive parents. She fledged in a large pen that let her jump and flap but not really get airborne. Then one day she was put into a box and when it opens, there is no pen, no top net. Was the freedom scary or exhilarating? Did she miss her old life or never look back? So far, 71-16 has only had one encounter with adult Whooping cranes, or what we refer to as her target pair. And unlike the others, she seemed to be a strong flyer right out of the box – pun intended.

Whooping crane 71-16 in flight Oct. 2nd. Photo: H. Ray

Whooping crane 71-16 in flight Oct. 2nd. Photo: H. Ray

Within a day or two, she left White River Marsh and headed southwest stopping to roost in excellent habitat each evening.

And how does 5-12 feel? That male has just about reached breeding age but lacks a mate. He has had a few in the past but they never seem to work out. He spent the summer in and around White River and finally bonded with 8-14. Everyone was excited that they might breed next spring but his plans were foiled when 4-13 moved into his territory, chased him off and stole his lady friend. Is he licking his wounds or plotting his revenge? Is he looking for someone new and swearing off relationships forever, or maybe he has forgotten her already. 8-14 who?

And what of the future? Are any of these birds aware of what’s coming? They have never experienced cold or snow but maybe some ancient instinct is stirring in them and they know big changes are ahead. So, which way is south again?

Sadly, Another Loss

Whooping crane #34-16 was released in Adams County, WI in late September – the same day that #30-16 was released on White River Marsh in Green Lake County, actually.

On Wednesday of this week, this young crane began exhibiting signs of illness. That afternoon, she sequestered herself in standing corn until Brooke ventured in to locate her and flushed her. The following day she seemed lethargic, spending much of the day hock-sitting and on Friday morning, Brooke and Patuxent’s Robert Doyle found her remains. She had been predated.

A necropsy will be carried out at the USGS National Wildlife Health Lab in Madison to determine cause of illness.

This leaves two young Parent Reared cranes in Adams County – Numbers 29-16 and 39-16. On Thursday afternoon, Doug Pellerin spent the afternoon monitoring them to give Colleen and Brooke a break. During his time there, Doug was able to capture the following photos of ‘the nine’s’ as Colleen refers to them.

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