Right about now our team would be gathering in Wisconsin and gearing up for the start of the migration, so it’s an interesting exercise to instead be preparing our birds for release.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service directed WCEP to focus on parent-rearing which we have done for the last two seasons. But, just like most things in life, saying and doing are not the same. For one thing, birds in captivity can produce more eggs than they can raise, hence the use of incubators and hand-rearing. In order to parent-rear chicks, adult pairs must stop producing eggs and instead spend all of their time being mom and dad. Consequently, the captive centers can only produce so many parent-reared chicks, and that does not include all of the eggs salvaged from Necedah NWR.
The odds of a chick surviving to breeding age when it was hatched in captivity and released into the wild are slim. In any reintroduction it is important to get the numbers out there because you never know who will be around in five years.
To offset attrition and keep the numbers up, the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed WCEP to include a small group of costume-reared birds along with the maximum number of parent-reared birds.
But it’s not all about the numbers. Birds parent-reared in captivity and released in the fall are somewhat disadvantaged. First, they learn how to fly in a pen or at least they try. Secondly, they don’t get much time to form a bond with their introduction site and their inclination to come back the following spring is compromised. And finally they don’t have much time to form a bond with the older Whooping cranes whom we hope will lead them south and show them how to survive along the way. Addressing those problems were our three ambitions when we started last spring and, so far, so good.
Brooke and Colleen have been doing a stellar job of caring for these seven callow birds. But, instead of improving their connection to the costumes and the aircraft so they will follow us over 1200 miles, they had to slowly remove themselves and foster independence.
We began by encouraging the chicks to fly. Whooping cranes take eighty to one hundred days to develop the feathers and muscles to fly. But it’s not like a switch that one day gets turned on and they are expert aviators. Learning the subtleties of balance and grace takes time and practice. Inexperienced birds will collide mid-air or even fly into trees. We have seen them try to land downwind which always reminds me of stealing rides on farm wagons when I was a kid.
In my home town farmers would stack bags of seed from the mill high on flatbed trailers pulled by tractors. As they drove slowly through the town we would jump on the back for a free ride. Once they’d get on the back roads though, they would shift into high gear. We were left with a choice of walking back from a farm some miles out in the country or trying to exit a too-fast tractor with too-short legs. We would dangle from the back of the trailer, trying to get our legs going fast enough to match the trailer speed – then let go. It never worked. Birds landing downwind have that same look on their faces when they realize just how fast they are moving.
Our seven costume reared birds are now expert flyers ready for a long migration.
Next the birds were introduced to the marsh. We cut wide paths through the tall grass and Brooke used a gas trimmer equipped with a blade to open up two nearby ponds. They were led there every day until the birds would fly on their own, but they wouldn’t stay alone for long. So Brooke or Colleen would hide in a blind while the chicks foraged. Still the bird knew the hiding places and eventually came looking. Brooke put out decoys of an adult bird and a costumed handler, and he would get into the blind before Colleen let them out. Instead of leading them to the pond she would close herself into the pen and finally the chicks would fly to the pond unaware of Brooke’s watchful eye.
Eventually they became more independent and, about that time, 5-12 (“Henry”) and 30-16 (the adopted son of the Royal Couple) began moving around more, a typical fall behavior. Those two males spent most of the summer deep in the marsh but now they often roost in a pond to the southwest of the pen, and our seven increasingly independent birds join them. They spend the nights together and go their separate ways in the morning.
Lately that bond has slowly been getting stronger. The more opportunity they have to spend time together, the better the chance the chicks will follow when it’s time to head south. We still have a month or two before that happens so we are letting nature take its course. Brooke and Colleen leave the pen door open and occasionally the chicks will stop in for food, but they are no longer dependent on what we provide. They have roosted out for the last two weeks and now some mornings all nine fly out together.
Henry spends his winters in St. Marks NWR and is famous for his attempts to encourage the 2015 cohort to follow him north. Three times he left the pen but came back to try again. He is also a forlorn and rejected male. Three times he has lost his mate to other, more aggressive males.
The “allo-prince”, number 30-16, followed the Royal Couple to Georgia last year in the only successful adoption.
Together, Henry and 30-16 are like Oscar and Felix but, hopefully, they will mentor this odd hybrid of costume-reared and adult-bonded chicks. It’s a modern family story. Stay tuned.