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.
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.