Lessons Learned

You only have to attend a few meetings as a new member of any committee or club before you understand where you fit into their social order. It doesn’t take long before you learn who the workers are, who is leading them — and who wants to be. That same hierarchy exist in avian societies just as it does in our human groups, otherwise we wouldn’t call it a “pecking order.” I wish we had the same quick insight into the dominance structure that exists in any cohort of Whooping cranes, but in bird culture, the leaders and the followers are a lot harder to identify when communication is limited to postures and displays. The strut in their walk, the ruffle of their feathers and the position of their head all convey clear messages to their flock mates but only vague signals to even the most expert human interpreter.

Every flock of birds we have raised from eggs to releasable sub-adults has had its own personality. Some were calm and sociable, while others were aggressive and independent — like the costume-reared class of 2017. From the beginning, our seven chicks were a tight group always sticking together even when they ventured out of the pen. We promoted that unity because there was a time when it was beneficial. When we led our birds south, they needed to be dedicated to the flock. If they didn’t have that allegiance to their peers, they were less likely to follow the birds that were following our aircraft and more likely to drop out or turn back. Those characteristics aren’t necessary anymore and this year, they proved to be a disadvantage.

The 2017 costume-reared birds are inexperienced and every day is a new learning opportunity. But rather than us being their teachers, they must now learn from other cranes, preferably Whoopers — although Sandhills are better than no mentors at all. Unfortunately, this naïve gang of innocents is too self-sufficient to submit to more seasoned cranes. They don’t know what they don’t know and they have yet to learn consequences of their baby bravado.

For more than six weeks, they spent most of their time with Henry (5-12) and 30-16. They foraged together and roosted in the same ponds, but if you watched closely, you could see the subtle delineation in the two groups. The seven would wander through fields poking in the mud while the other two would follow behind. They often broke into two factions in the air, even if only temporarily.

Adults 5-12 (Henry) and 30-16 in flight with the seven costume-reared juvenile whooping cranes. Photo: Doug Pellerin

And when the air turned cold and the ponds froze, Henry and his young friend left. They circled a few times and called to the chicks but left them behind when they wouldn’t heed. Even the Royal Couple tried to get them to follow but gave up. (Read Colleen’s update for more details on those fascinating interactions).

The winds have been blowing to the south lately and most of the Sandhills have read the signs and headed south. If they don’t take the hint soon the chicks will be on their own. In 2013, another close knit cohort of costume-reared chicks failed to migrate. Mind you, it was much later in the season. Rather than cold nights and a skiff of snow in the mornings, winter had set in for the long run. So, in order to prevent these seven from learning the hard way the penalties of not migrating, we decided to be proactive. We raised our concern on the WCEP Monitoring and Management Team call and developed a plan to break up this little autonomous gang. The first part of Plan A took place on Wednesday. Brooke and Colleen captured cranes 3-17 and 7-17 and took them down to the Wisconsin River in Sauk County to meet Anne Lacy and Hillary Thompson from ICF. The two were released near hundreds of Sandhills and they flew right to them. We hope that without their allies, they’ll be a little less insolent and soon learn what they didn’t know.

In the interim, the weather is predicted to turn a little warmer, which we hope will give the remaining five a chance to figure it out. With two of their group absent, the dynamic may change and we have time to see if that happens. If not, and the weather starts to become a critical factor, Plan B is to collect them all and relocate them to Goose Pond in southern Indiana. That Fish and Wildlife Area was in fact, established, in part, because of the Whooping cranes that began using it in the first years of this reintroduction.

It’s far enough south that our birds have wintered there and it’s now a common stopover during both legs of the migration with birds there at most times of the year. If we have to relocate them, they are bound to meet other cranes moving north or south later this year or next spring and with their familiarity of White River, we are confident, they will be back.

All of this is an opportunity for us to learn too. If we have another tight-knit cohort next year, we will act sooner, now that we have seen the consequences. We could divide the pen to separate groups or let them out in different orders and different times. When we raised 18 to 20 cranes in a season, we had to train them in up to three cohorts based on age and their ability to fly. At the end of those seasons, we had to manipulate their dominance structure to integrate three independent groups into one cohesive flock. We know how to bring them together so we will figure out how to keep them just independent enough to accept a little guidance when it’s needed. 

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  1. Cheryl Murphy November 26, 2017 10:01 am

    Thank you for the update Joe and for you and your OM crew’s hard work and dedication and relentlessness in continuing to figure out what does and does not work. We appreciate being able to follow this journey.

  2. Dorothy Nordness November 26, 2017 9:48 am

    That post is a wonderfully informative write-up of a knotty problem. Thank you so much, Joe. I hope your action plan A works since the group is now broken up. But if plan B goes into effect, we’ll be here waiting on the report.

  3. Jean P. aka CrabtowneMd November 24, 2017 7:15 pm

    Thank you for the updates. I hope this bit of clique busting works. May the weather, winds, and crane psyches all converge to produce a successful migration soon !

  4. Mindy Finklea November 24, 2017 6:51 pm

    Thank you for the picture Doug….it is beautiful….And thank you Joe for explaining things….It helps so much…

  5. P Doms November 24, 2017 2:47 pm

    Ummmm, it seems (to me) that the grand plan decision made a couple of years back by ‘others’ has not worked out as well as hoped….thus far. Learn by doing and either success or failure. Bits of success and more failure, it seems to me, thus far. Hope things work out better for next season. We can’t lose the Whoopers numbers.

  6. Catherine Wohlfeil November 24, 2017 1:52 pm

    Sounds like a good plan!

  7. RadAudit1 November 24, 2017 11:40 am

    Getting this flock up to a self sustaining critical mass is definitely a learning process.

  8. Di November 24, 2017 11:25 am

    Thank you again for these updates and all your time, energy and hard work!

  9. Sidney Burr November 24, 2017 11:16 am

    The dedication of your entire group of humans is impressive and probably so necessary to the eventual survival of this species. Thank you all.

  10. PattiLat November 24, 2017 10:44 am

    Thanks Joe for such a detailed entry on “The Plan”. What to do with teenagers? It is a dilemma! We will hope they will get the migrate message in their new situation. How lucky they are to have such experienced persons being proactive in their behalf. How gratefully we are to have you share this learning with us.