Counting (Crane) Eggs Before They Hatch

Years ago, when we worked with Columbia Pictures to produce the movie Fly Away Home we spoke to writers and producers about timing. It seemed the annual breeding cycle of Canada geese didn’t align with their intended shooting schedule and they asked us what we could do about that conflict. They understood that geese nest in the spring and migrate in the fall but had difficulty comprehending that no amount of Hollywood money could change that cycle.

It was funny at the time but in truth, breeding season for geese, and lately whooping cranes, always leaves us in limbo too. Each year the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership makes plan for the coming season but all of our great ambitions hang on the complexities of nature. The outcome can be guessed, estimated, projected or averaged with algorithms for standard deviations, but in the end, the result is about as sure as tossing the dice. 

This year is no different. Twenty-seven eggs were collected from the first nests at Necedah NWR (26 fertile). Both the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the International Crane Foundation produced slightly fewer eggs than they expected but that was balanced by larger production at the Calgary Zoo in Canada So far they have transported twelve eggs to Patuxent and will raise three or four parent-reared (PR) chicks this season. Additionally, the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species (ACRES) in Louisiana has also increased their production. All of this is tentatively encouraging but lots can still happen. Roughly 75 percent of the eggs that are laid hatch and 75 percent of those, result in releasable chicks. In the interim, we wait, and we plan, and we second-guess our decisions. Should we launch the funding campaign, buy the materials or relocate the crew?

This year, WCEP hopes to release up to 15 or so parent-reared birds in the fall. That number is limited by what the captive breeding centers can accommodate. We also planned for a costume-reared (CR) cohort of 6 to 8 whooping cranes to increase the numbers so the population can grow beyond the numbers lost annually to natural causes.

At the last Rearing and Release Team meeting, it was cautiously predicted that there should be enough birds this season to cover the PR priority and for a small CR cohort. That second group would be transported to White River early in the season so the staff at Patuxent can concentrate on parent-rearing.

A small group of Whooping cranes will be costume reared at White River Marsh in Green Lake Co., WI this summer!

The area around the pensite at White River is open for turkey hunting until June 15th so that is the earliest possible date. That will be balanced by the 35-day age limit when it is safe to ship them.

Before that relocation takes place, we hope to expand a portion of our pensite. We also need to set up the water pump, lay the supply hoses, fit the top net and prepare the observation blind. We hope to host a workday or two so any craniac interested in getting their hands dirty for a good cause, please let us know by sending an email with subject line “WRM Volunteer” to info(at)operationmigration.org

At this point it looks like the weekend of June 3-4 is the best time to get the work done and will still give us time thereafter in case we get rained out.

In the meantime, we keep crossing our fingers and counting our eggs before they hatch. 

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11 Comments

  1. Barb May 26, 2017 3:55 pm

    Hello, Can an adult bird be taught the migration route and seasonal sequence? My question is a thought to the huge morality of chicks that was witnessed last year because the young, released birds didn’t have a clue about predators, and dangers in the wild. We were hoping that adults would adopt the youngsters, protect them, and teach them how to be a wild bird. That didn’t go according to plan. What if some of the extra hatched chicks were held for a year, then next Spring released in the Northern wetlands. They then are stronger, smarter and able to fend off predators. Teaching migration route might be easier, and perhaps they would even hook up with other juveniles that have migrated.

    • Heather Ray May 27, 2017 7:30 am

      Your thought is a good one and has been considered along with variations like keeping them until they would normally separate from their parents and releasing them on the wintering grounds in the company of adults. That way if they joined adults and headed north, they learn the concept of migration, but if they didn’t, they were at least in someplace warm and wouldn’t need to survive the cold.

      We don’t know if migration can be taught or learned in the second year but we have proposed that idea using, as you say, a small subset of the birds.

      In their vision statement, the Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that the ultralight release method was the most artificial because the birds were held the longest. That extended captivity is believed to have resulted in inattentive parents, hence the high mortality at Necedah.

      The intense tracking WCEP is conducting at Necedah this year, coupled with adjustments to the PR release method should provide answers to two of the three possible inhibitors to the success of the EMP. If it is inattentiveness, the PR birds should be better parents. If it is a habitat issue, mortality tests at Necedah and breeding success at White River should give us that answer. The final obstacle however could be captive selection, but so far we do not have the means to test that hypothesis.

      In this period of transition, we are proposing lots of ideas with the intent of producing quality birds over quantity birds, so please keep the ideas coming.

      Thank you for your interest in Whooping cranes.

  2. Marilyn May 26, 2017 11:22 am

    such great news… I’m doing “the happy dance”!

  3. Amy Ouchley May 25, 2017 9:04 pm

    The Louisiana craniacs appreciate all that you do for the Louisiana Reintroduction program. Thank you from our hearts.

  4. Kathy May 25, 2017 8:58 am

    Why are you doing a DAR project when just a year ago it was decided by USFS that costume rearing was thought to be a potential cause for poor reproduction?

    • Heather Ray May 25, 2017 10:11 am

      When the USFWS mandated that parent rearing be used exclusively, it was soon discovered that the method was limited by the number of chicks that could be parent reared by the captive facilities. Captive pairs have to be taken out of egg production to raise chicks and there are only so many pairs available. The captive centers also have an obligation to produce Costume Reared chicks for the Louisiana non-migratory population so they must balance the two requirements.

      Parent Reared releases are also limited by the number of pairs in the wild that are suitable adoption candidates.

      This year there appears to be enough eggs to raise as many PR cranes as possible AND enough to fulfill the Louisiana requirements and some left over. That allows for a Costume Reared cohort at White River Marsh, which will boost the number of birds released into the EMP to outpace natural attrition.

      Also we hope to modify the Costume Rearing method and to explore the viability of conducting an in-the-field Parent Reared study in the future.

  5. Dora Giles May 24, 2017 11:40 am

    Will the chicks at WRM be UL trained to fly?

    http://OM%20In%20The%20Field

    • Heather Ray May 24, 2017 12:56 pm

      No. They will be costume-reared and then released in the early autumn

  6. Mollie Cook May 24, 2017 10:14 am

    Wonderful news Joe………..thanks for the update!

  7. Sandee Kosmo May 24, 2017 9:09 am

    Thank you, Joe, for the detailed update for us craniacs. I wish I could help, but I have an Author’s Book Bash in Chippewa Falls (whooping crane book). Keep us posted. I want to do what I can, where I can, when I can for our whooper families. Take good care of Wakanda. Fly strong.

    http://Wakanda%20Whooper

  8. Jean P. aka CrabtowneMd May 24, 2017 7:52 am

    Great news ! ! ! The smiley icon isn’t big enough to express the joy this post brings. Praying all goes well for a “bumper” flock of little whoopers. The efforts of all involved are amazing and appreciated.
    Thank you.