If we were not optimistic, we wouldn’t have the stamina to work with Whooping cranes. In fact, you have to be looking on the bright side if you are willing to bet years of hard work on building a self-sustaining population. That optimism is what carries us through days like Monday when 3-14 and 4-12 lost their eggs to a hungry coyote.

Since 2011 when we moved from Necedah to White River, the number of chicks we have been able to release each year has been down. In part, that is a result of lower reproduction at the captive centers and the splitting of resources between two reintroduction programs. And reintroduction is all about numbers. There is a critical mass when programs like this hit a mysterious number and things begin to work. Researchers can estimate that pivotal quantity with a population viability analysis but a lot still has to do with luck. Good breeding seasons are balanced by tough winters. Heavy predation at one end of the migration is offset by bountiful food resources at the other and eventually the averages begin to work. Dispersal comes next as the growing population moves to a range wide enough that one local event does not affect the entire population.

California condors are an example of the critical mass. Although they are still critically endangered, the number are starting to work out – slowly – and after 26 years. Trumpeter swans are also experiencing annual growth now that there are substantial numbers in the Midwest. Even the Aransas, Wood Buffalo population of Whooping cranes reached that magic number sometime in the 1970s or 80s when it was large enough that tough years didn’t send the flock into a tailspin. 

None of the Whooping crane reintroduction projects has reached that turning point yet but that is not much comfort when we witness events like we saw on Monday evening. We all knew the numbers were against that pair. Only two birds, still young and inexperienced and at least a season or two from normal breeding success age. Still they did a great job. They were dedicated and vigilant and gave every indication of being good parents. They have learned valuable lessons and next season there will be more pairs like them until the numbers begin to work for them.

It is disheartening and sad but it’s all in the numbers.  We add more birds each year, hedging our bets until the odds are in our favor. Like a wise gambler, we don’t hang all of our hopes on the long-shot. We don’t count on one bet to carry the day. Instead, we keep at it, balancing disappointment with optimism because we know the numbers will eventually work and the bet will no longer be a gamble.

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  1. Catherine Wohlfeil May 13, 2017 1:13 pm

    I heard of elevated platforms being used at Necedah. Any way of doing that at White River? Also, while recently at Horicon Marsh I believe they were doing a draw down of the water. Would that assist in any way to decrease the reed cover near nesting areas? From the photographs though it looks like the couple created a wonderful first nest in a central pond area.

    It’s great to see that they, and you at OM, are hanging in there and working with the present moment in order to ensure a bright future for these birds and the environment in which they reside.

    Carry on and hold hope in your hearts for these magnificent birds. The coyote must have been very desperate indeed to take on the wrath of two birds so much larger than he. The birds, and OM, must too take on a project of tremendous proportions but this with inconceivable resultant gain by guiding and assisting the proliferation of this species so that our children will be able to see them, and can hear them call out in the morning’s light as a beacon toward tomorrow’s green earth. God’s speed guys… keep up the good work…

  2. Mindy May 12, 2017 2:26 pm

    You explain all of it so well Joe, thank you. There’s sadness over the loss of the nest but the RC goes on. So can we.

  3. Kate Crook May 12, 2017 7:17 am

    Your optimism carries all of us Joe! Is there any chance that 3-14 and 4-12 will try again?

  4. Dave hanson May 11, 2017 12:38 pm

    You have my back. Keep trying….

  5. Mollie Cook May 11, 2017 12:18 pm

    Thank you for putting it all in perspective Joe. It helps with the sadness & loss. And THANK YOU for all you do!!

  6. Sandee Kosmo May 11, 2017 10:20 am

    All the effort, Joe, is paying off. It’s events like Monday that make us pause and remember how fragile the progress is. However, the hard work by you and so many over the years in Wisconsin is turning our state into a whooper destination. We must continue to look at the accomplishments and relish them for surely there will be Monday disappointments. We’ve come too far to let down these beautiful birds. THANK YOU.


  7. Glenda May May 11, 2017 8:51 am

    Good and helpful words in the midst of this sadness.

  8. PattiLat May 11, 2017 8:12 am

    Excellent commentary, Joe. Thank you.