Parent Reared Whooping Cranes

Guest Author: Glenn H. Olsen, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

So, how do we go about parent-rearing whooping crane chicks at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center? We originally developed the parent-rearing technique long before we developed costume-rearing for the ultralight-led and direct autumn release programs. We have used parent-rearing releases first for endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes and later for Whooping Cranes released in Florida in the 1990s. Some Mississippi Sandhill Crane chicks are still parent-reared by our partners at White Oak Plantation for release into the wild. As we developed the Eastern Migratory Population in the Wisconsin to Florida corridor, we had survival of our introduced birds that was similar to the survival of Whooping Cranes in the wild Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock, and this was great. However, our introduced Whooping Cranes seemed to have problems rearing chicks.

After thinking hard about this, I became concerned that in addition to black flies, predators, etc., that maybe our costume-reared Whooping Crane chicks were missing some “early childhood education” by not being with their parents. Whooping Crane chicks stay with the adults for almost a year, learning the migration route, but they must be learning other behaviors, also. In 2013 I was able to start a small research project looking at ways to parent-rear and release Whooping Cranes in Wisconsin. The idea was that these birds would grow up to pair with other costume-reared birds from ultralight and direct autumn release reintroductions and be better parents, but more on this in another report.

IMG_0970_1What do we do when we are parent-rearing young Whooping Crane chicks? The first step is to get the parent birds to build nests and lay eggs. This means keeping them healthy all year. Even so, not all adult Whooping Cranes lay eggs each year. We have 12 pairs that could be potential parents, but only 9 of them laid eggs and were parents this year.

Ideally, the parent birds will sit on their own eggs, but some of our parents at Patuxent have difficulty with incubation, sometimes because of old wing injuries or other problems that mean they do not always incubate well, even though they may be excellent parents. So we sometimes swap out their eggs for wooden ‘dummy’ eggs and let them incubate the wood egg until near hatching when we swap an egg about to hatch.

After hatching, the chick is treated similarly to the chicks we costume-rear as far as health and well-being is concerned. We make daily veterinary examinations to check for any health or developmental problems. The Whooping Crane parents do the rest, though. They feed the chick insects, worms, meal worms and pelleted feed (both of which we supply) and they keep the chick warm, brooding it at night and in inclement weather.

Two years ago we had a female who was going through a severe molt cycle and it would have been difficult for her to brood her chick and keep it dry in rainy weather. We were concerned about her and her chick until we discovered that she was keeping the chick dry and healthy in the covered shed where the birds come to feed. Smart mama crane!

Here are some additional photos explaining the parent rearing process.


A adult Whooping crane stands alert with a young chick at its feet.

Parents position themselves on either side of their youngster as Patuxent staff approach.

Parents position themselves on either side of their youngster as Patuxent staff approach.

The two adults alarm call. These are all important behaviors the young chicks observe and learn.

The two adults alarm call. These are all important behaviors the young chicks observe and learn.

Ed. Note: There are currently 14 Whooping crane chicks being reared by parents for release this fall in the Eastern Migratory Population. 9 at Patuxent, 3 at the International Crane Foundation and 2 at the Calgary Zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Center.

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  1. aintthatamerica August 5, 2016 2:44 am

    I had the good fortune to view the Whooper population at Patuxent in 1970. The program(s) have come a long way.

  2. PDoms, (ffmn) August 4, 2016 11:36 am

    Heather, I had same Q as Mollie Cook, but now, re the 8 person team….does that mean there will be ‘on the road’ by the teams until cranes reach a wintering site?

    • Heather Ray August 4, 2016 3:20 pm

      Details are still being worked out but yes, we’ll be on the road and reporting from the road.

  3. Dorothy N August 4, 2016 10:55 am

    Wonderful, informative report. I’m looking forward to the sequel and any other information on the current plan and its successes and challenges. Thank you!!!

  4. Susan O’Connell August 4, 2016 7:40 am

    So these parents cannot fly? How do the chicks learn to fly?

    • Heather Ray August 4, 2016 8:14 am

      They’ll be able to fly once they’re released in September. Flight comes naturally to them and any other birds but they’ll have ample opportunity to fine tune their abilities in Wisconsin before they need to migrate south.

  5. Margaret Howden August 3, 2016 10:17 am

    Glenn, Perhaps you will be covering these topics in your next article (“but more on this in another report.”). So many questions since there are so many variables…

    You mention that in the wild, crane chicks stay with their parents for nearly a year and learn the migration route from them. Are the parent-reared chicks released with or without their parents? They are about 5 months old at release I think? If no longer with their parents, are they accepted by an existing cohort for the migration or do they solo, or go with sandhills?

    I’m curious about one, two, and (eventually, as you mention 2013 first release) five-year survival rates of the parent-reared chicks. Fingers crossed for good numbers since they’ve got to achieve breeding age in the wild (4 to 7 years, mean age 5???). I can’t believe how invested we followers are in the outcome of each chick. For all of you guys actually working with the birds (OM, ICF, Patuxent, etc.) it has got to be intense!

  6. Mollie Cook August 3, 2016 10:13 am

    So how does OM fit into this scenario?

    • Heather Ray August 3, 2016 10:45 am

      We have a team of 8 persons that will be releasing/monitoring the chicks post release and until they reach a suitable wintering location.

      • Mindy August 3, 2016 12:03 pm

        So will the chicks be released right there at White River Marsh and if so, are there enough Whoopers around there to show them the ropes? How will they find someone to migrate with? Sandhills?

        • Heather Ray August 3, 2016 12:41 pm

          Patience ‘grasshopper’ – these details are still being worked out 😉

  7. Chris Cobb August 3, 2016 8:53 am

    Thank you for this report on parent-rearing! I hope you will share more about the program in the future. One question: there’s a photo of parents alarm-calling accompanying what you have written. Is it possible/done to teach predator aversion as part of the parent-rearing program?

    • Heather Ray August 3, 2016 10:09 am

      They are alarm calling as the uncostumed humans arrive so I’m sure they’re teaching the chick that humans should be avoided.