People who live in the Yukon Territories of Canada say that once you have been there for a year, you know all there is to know. But after five years, you begin to realize how little you understand.
Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area is a wonderful wetland complex in southern Indiana. In fact, the move to protect that habitat was inspired, partially by the number of Whooping cranes that began stopping there when this project first started. Since then it has become an important stopover for many migratory species including Whooping cranes and as of Tuesday morning, there were twelve of them using that area. During mild winters, some of the cranes have even stayed there until spring, which makes it a logical place to relocate unmotivated migrants.
Not much of this reintroduction project is left to chance. Each action is well considered by teams with years of experience and the best interest of the birds in mind. Collecting the last three costume-reared birds was Plan B of a strategy to deal a cohort that we believe was too tightly associated to heed the guidance of their elders. Plan A was to relocate two of the original seven to where the Sandhill cranes were still staging a few miles to the south. That worked so well that we move two more to the same location. Once their gang mentality was disrupted and they were feeling less secure, they willingly followed their new peers to warmer climates.
The last three remaining chicks at White River were a test to see if they would initiate their own departure but they ignored the clues that prompted all the other cranes to leave. They disregarded the cold temperature, the frozen ponds, and even the good migration weather. That’s not surprising really when you remember they are still very young. Normally they would be under the care of their parents during this first, critical migration instead of learning it all the hard way.
Moving birds that are to be released into the wild is not as simple as just driving them south. To control illegal trade, disease transfer from improperly managed farms or the introduction of invasive species, permits are needed to import animals into most states. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources was very cooperative in getting us the right permits. Part of that process is a health certificate so the birds had to be captured and placed in a temporary pen. Dr. Denise Stempa of Countryside Veterinary Services in Appleton Wisconsin was kind enough to take time from her busy surgery schedule to drive an hour to Princeton. She had to put on a costume and walk out to the isolated pen before signing off on the three. Later in the afternoon, Brooke put the birds into individual crates and with Colleen’s help, they loaded them into the van and headed south.
Driving overnight minimized traffic delays and keeps the birds calmer. They met with refuge staff and volunteers before sunrise and just after first light, the birds were released.
They flew into the marsh while Brooke and Colleen had much needed coffee and toured the Goose Pond complex with manager Travis Stoelting.
Number 2-17 is fitted with a GSM remote tracking device that works on cell phone technology. That three thousand dollar unit checks for a cell connection periodically and downloads its track history. Three hours after the released, number 2-17 was 40 miles to the south at 1500 feet altitude doing a little over 42 mph (obviously with a little tailwind).
After a quick check of the refuge, no signals were heard from the other two chicks and many of the adult Whooping cranes that were there first thing in the morning – were gone.
Like so many behaviors of Whooping cranes, there is not clear picture here. We can’t use this as a model for what to expect in the future. We have seen birds that migrate on their own, in the company of adults or with Sandhill cranes. Two Whooping cranes from the Louisiana Non-Migratory Population spent the summer in Saskatchewan, Canada this year and headed back to LA in the fall. We can’t track every bird all the time. We can’t know what motivates the migration or dictated the course or even what gets it started. All we can do is scratch our heads and add it to the experience we have accumulated.
We know from years of leading the birds south that the first day is always the worst. Having flown around the refuge for most of their lives, they were reluctant to follow us in a straight line. Before we would get them too far they would turn back or drop out. Maybe getting them started is the hard part. Perhaps that’s why Henry and 30-16 tried so hard and the Royal Couple gave up after three attempts. Or maybe driving them south was the kick-start they needed. All we can do now is take a lesson from the Yukoners and accept that we may never know. We can wish our chicks well, and hope they make it back to Goose Pond next spring in time for some of the adults to show them the way home — if they’ve learned to listen.