Practice, Practice, Practice

Our young Parent Reared Whooping crane colts have been practicing their flight abilities quite a bit over the past two days.

Yesterday, we watched them take to the sky five times in 3 hours and just moments ago, they set off on a 6 minute flight over the area before returning to their favorite foraging field.

Whooping cranes 31 & 38-16 in flight. Photo: H. Ray

Home Alone

When I was a kid, there was a story going around school about a kid in the next town named Henry who was always getting into some kind of trouble. Then one day, Henry returned home from school to find a note on the front door of his now completely empty house which said, “Henry. Have a nice life.” Seems that Henry’s parents, for reasons never quite clear to us, had moved away to a new beginning, leaving poor Henry to make his own way through life. How could his parents do such a thing, we wondered?

The whole affair suddenly filled the dark peripheries of our imagination with the dancing gnomes of doubt and uncertainty, causing a short, collective breath hold at the completion of each subsequent journey home from school as our eyes scanned the front door for a note.

Three weeks ago in Adams County as we swung open the pen door to “soft release” #29 and 39-16, I thought of Henry’s parents as yet another chapter began in life’s saga entitled, “Yesterday I Couldn’t Spell It. Today I Are One.”

Number 34-16 awaited outside the pen in the field having been “Jack in the Box Hard Released” the day before. Also in the field were some “target pairs” of adult Whooping cranes, which we hoped would “adopt” all or at least one of the chicks.  In fact, three of the four different “target” pairs of adult whoopers that frequented this ag field looked on. But alas, the chicks demonstrated not the slightest interest in the adults and the adults reciprocated as all of our hopes for a much anticipated “Kodak Moment” were dashed.  It felt like we were sitting in a multiplex movie theater and as the movie began, we suddenly realized we were in the wrong theater. Not exactly the reception we had hoped for.

Still, it’s like they say, “Hope springs eternal.” For someone like me, who shaves every morning in front of a fun house mirror, whose ringtone is the theme from “Twilight Zone” and whose five favorite movies are “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and its four sequels, my expectations were already reasonably tempered and shielded against reality’s inevitable assaults, firmly placing such disappointments in the realm of the expected.

All of this was more than three weeks ago. Since then, Colleen, with the help of Dr. Glenn Olsen and Robert Doyle from Patuxent, Doug Pellerin and myself, have spent 10-14 hours a day, every day observing the chicks in this ag field so that they would be protected as much as possible and so there would be no future questions in anyone’s mind as to what actually did and did not happen here.

No adoptions have as yet taken place although target pair 24 & 42-09 does visit to forage most days, female #34-16 was lost to predation… probably a coyote like the one that predated 32-16, and the two remaining chicks, AKA Mutt and Jeff, continue their adventures in and around this ag field while hunters, harvesters, and trappers continue to use their property.

We take solace, however, in the words of the late, great New York Yankee Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” There is still time for a happy ending and we’re not about to give up yet. We’ll continue to maintain our “full court press” intensely observing and documenting the saga of Mutt and Jeff, and will share their adventures with you periodically in the Field Journal so that we can all take this ride together. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy a little company now and then?

Just ask Henry!

Crane colts 29 & 39-16 attempt to fly off to roost with adults 24 & 42-09. Photo: D. Pellerin

Crane colts 29 & 39-16 attempt to fly off to roost with adults 24 & 42-09. Photo: D. Pellerin

Pin the Tail on the Crane

Tracking birds with a handheld receiver and yagi antenna can be a lot like playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey – at least the blindfold part.

There are a lot of factors that complicate the game. We often stop by the side of the road, dial in the frequency of the bird you are looking for and sweep the antenna over your head, trying to pick out the beep from a background of static. Often though, you find yourself standing directly under power lines which increase the background noise. All the electrics in the truck also adds a bit of interference so with each stop, I shut it off.


VHF transmissions work on line-of-sight which means the signal emitted from the transmitter on the bird’s leg travels directly to the receiver you are holding. However, just like vision, it does not pass well through trees, buildings or over hills. Those obstacles reduce the range but they can also bounce a signal so the bird may not always be in the direction the antenna is pointed.

Here, around the marsh, the signal is usually only good for a mile at best. Still there are times when you can pick up a beep a long distance off – depending on what is between you and the object of your search. By the same token, the bird could be in a valley close by but radio silent. Or it could be standing in water which covers the antenna on its leg. The bird might also be airborne, which increases the transmitter range, making you think you are right on top of it when in fact, its across the marsh.

With practice you learn to second guess the receiver and play a game that’s half electronics and half technique – with a good measure of dumb luck added in.

At least with the other game, the donkey and the tail you’re trying to pin on it, are both in the same room… And you usually get to eat cake afterwards.

More Volunteers Shine Bright!

St. Marks and St. Vincent volunteers and staff accomplished a lot during the annual workday at the whooping crane pen yesterday.

Cleaned up after hurricane Hermine and repaired top net and fencing. Hurricane Hermine made landfall at 1:30 a.m. Friday, September 2nd near St. Marks in Florida’s Big Bend, packing 80 mph winds as the storm crashed ashore.

Thanks to everyone that worked on the pen site yesterday!

Amazing Student Volunteers!

Guest Author – Mako Pellerin

Mary O’Brien, Doug and I visited the Princeton school on Sept. 30 to extend our sincere appreciation to the Princeton School student volunteers, art teacher Miss Corrie Mussell and Ms. Sue Kinas for all of their hard work and dedication on the Giant Origami Whooping Crane project featured at the Whooping crane festival.

The key to success of this project was the involvement of teachers and student volunteers who gave their time and talent to help us achieve this unique way of paying tribute to the Whooping cranes that summer in the Princeton area.

The first time I met the 10 volunteer students on the day of the event, I gave brief instructions about the many steps and sequencing involved in folding the giant crane…

Mako uses a small model to show the students how the much larger crane will be folded.

Mako uses a small model to show the students how the much larger crane will be folded.

Prepping the HUGE origami crane for display on the stage.

Prepping the HUGE origami crane for display on the stage.

I was very impressed to discover that the students knew just exactly what they were expected to do without any prior practice. They expressed significant enthusiasm and energy while staying focused on the tasks needed to accomplish our goal. Several of the students and teachers also stayed to help place the giant crane on the stage and do the finishing touches.

Thank you to the amazing student volunteers, Miss Corrie Mussell, who also conducted the T-shirt art contest for this event, and Ms. Sue Kinas for contributing time and effort to this project.

Thanks, student volunteers and teachers – we couldn’t have done it without you.


The finished origami crane featured a wingspan of 37 feet!

The finished origami crane featured a wingspan of 37 feet!

Paying it Forward

We’d like to introduce you to a very special young family from Marquette County, Wisconsin.

In mid-September we approached them to ask permission to erect a release enclosure on their farm so that Parent Reared Whooping crane #31-16 could be placed inside. You see, two adult Whooping cranes; male 4-13 and female 7-14 had been spending time foraging in their field, along with hundreds of Canada geese and a handful of Sandhill cranes.

This young couple agreed and the next day the pen was setup and the young crane was moved there from our White River Marsh pensite. Very soon after, the adults showed up and immediately showed interest in the young crane chick inside the enclosure.

What happened over the next couple of weeks can be learned by reading back in this Field Journal but little did we know that this amazing family had their own story to tell. One of hope – and caring and of paying it forward.

Please watch this video and read their story. If, afterwards, you’d like to help young Lilah’s family with her medical bills – send James Henke an email ( and tell him the Whooping cranes sent you.

Kestrel Returned to the Wild

Anyone who has been following our work over the years has no doubt heard the name Pat Fisher. ‘Fisher’ as she prefers to be called is a licensed bird rehabber and operates The Feather – home to a number of raptors and Sandhill cranes currently receiving care. I first met Fisher on the observation tower at Necedah NWR in the fall of 2001. She’s been a friend since.

Those that have attended the Princeton Whooping Crane Festival no doubt attended Fisher’s presentation with a number of birds on the glove.

Today, this remarkable woman visited us here at White River Marsh and brought with her a young-of-year American kestrel, which had just been banded and was ready for release after being in Pat’s care since the end of June.

Joe Duff got to do the honors, while Jo-Anne and I captured photos. Enjoy!

Pat and Joe position the young kestrel in preparation for release. Photo: H. Ray

Pat and Joe position the young kestrel in preparation for release. 


Pat warned that the young bird was a biter.

Away she goes!

Away she goes!

And off she flew... There are a number of these small falcons in the area so we hope she'll be accepted by them readily.

And off she flew… There are a number of these small falcons in the area so we hope she’ll be accepted by them readily.


The Saga that is #5-12

WARNING – I’m about to anthropomorphize.

I’d like to give Whooping crane 5-12 a hug. I think he needs it. I would.

He’s had another mate stolen from him.

It seems male 4-13 who, along with his previous mate female 7-14, was minding two of the Parent Reared crane kids in Marquette County has decided that love is more important than playing ‘Dad.’

For almost two weeks the Marquette County ‘target pair’ showed up each day and spent the entire day with 31 & 38-16. They foraged together. Snoozed together. Flew together. Each evening they would all take to the sky and circle the large field. Each evening the young cranes would land and the adults would carry on to their familiar roost location some 3.5 miles east.

On September 30th, only the male 4-13 returned. He stayed for about a half day before leaving. Same story the next day. On Sunday, October 2nd, he appeared at 7 am and began calling – over and over – he called. He left at 11 am and never returned.

That evening, I watched 31 & 38-16 fly off the field to a great roost location for the first time… Alone. It was actually one that 4-13 and 7-14 had used previously.

The next day, as Jo-Anne and I drove around after our crane chicks who had finally discovered the art of flight, we heard from Bev Paulan, who was flying over the area looking for the remains of 7-14, that she had just watched 4-13 whoop 5-12’s butt and try to steal his girl, 8-14 at White River Marsh!

The next day, Joe saw 5-12 with 8-14 and we all cheered. Unfortunately, it was short lived. Male 4-13 has been with 8-14 every day since and we’ve not seen or heard the beeps of male 5-12 since last Friday.

So, yes, I’d like to hug 5-12…

The new couple: Male #4-13 on the left and female #8-14. Photo: H. Ray

The new couple: Male #4-13 on the left and female #8-14. Photo: H. Ray

Meanwhile, 31 & 38-16 continue to do well, despite not having an adult Whooping crane with them. Each morning we locate them roosting on a lovely little wetland a couple miles from their release field and they’ve been flying quite a lot during the day and foraging in nearby fields.

Parent Reared Whooping cranes 38-16 in the foreground and 31-16. Photo: H. Ray

Parent Reared Whooping cranes 38-16 in the foreground and 31-16. Photo: H. Ray


Dr. Jane Goodall changed our perception of animals when she showed the world that chimpanzees used rudimentary tools and had complex social structures. Corvids have learned to use car traffic at intersections to break tough nutshells, while herons have been documented stealing pieces of bread from tourists to bait fish. With continued research, the line we have traditionally used to define the difference between humans and the rest of the animals we share the planet with, has moved. We now understand that they communicate more than we imagined and that they feel and express some degree of emotion. Just ask any pet owner.

Unfortunately, our overwhelming tendency is to apply human values to the animal world. Beatrix Potter and Walt Disney taught us that they are simply furred or feathered version of ourselves.

So engrained is that inclination that researchers use the term anthropomorphism to describe attributing human characteristics to animals. Depending on who you talk to, that anthropomorphic line can move from one extreme to the other; from dressing poodles in tutus to eradicating entire species that we consider a nuisance.

As researchers, we attempt to be objective. It is easy to say that the birds where happy in the pen when in truth, we have no idea whether they were happy or not. With a little discipline, we report instead that there were no recognizable signs of stress.

When you work closely with animals, it is difficult to maintain that objectivity and you catch yourself relating to their experiences in your own terms.

As a pilot, my big indulgence is thinking how it would feel when I, as a bird, finally discovered the purpose of those odd appendages sticking out the sides of my body. I instinctively flap them when I run but that’s more for balance than anything. No one has yet told me to be patient, that soon I will use them to fly. What’s fly?

Then one day when I am full of energy and the wind was blowing in my face, I ran forward and for some unknown yet unquestioned reason, I flapped those seeming useless wings and suddenly…

Airborne for the first time, was I afraid of heights? Did I panic when I looked down from altitudes never before experienced?  Or was it all as natural as it looks to people stuck on the ground?

How does 71-16 feel? She was raised at ICF by protective, yet captive parents. She fledged in a large pen that let her jump and flap but not really get airborne. Then one day she was put into a box and when it opens, there is no pen, no top net. Was the freedom scary or exhilarating? Did she miss her old life or never look back? So far, 71-16 has only had one encounter with adult Whooping cranes, or what we refer to as her target pair. And unlike the others, she seemed to be a strong flyer right out of the box – pun intended.

Whooping crane 71-16 in flight Oct. 2nd. Photo: H. Ray

Whooping crane 71-16 in flight Oct. 2nd. Photo: H. Ray

Within a day or two, she left White River Marsh and headed southwest stopping to roost in excellent habitat each evening.

And how does 5-12 feel? That male has just about reached breeding age but lacks a mate. He has had a few in the past but they never seem to work out. He spent the summer in and around White River and finally bonded with 8-14. Everyone was excited that they might breed next spring but his plans were foiled when 4-13 moved into his territory, chased him off and stole his lady friend. Is he licking his wounds or plotting his revenge? Is he looking for someone new and swearing off relationships forever, or maybe he has forgotten her already. 8-14 who?

And what of the future? Are any of these birds aware of what’s coming? They have never experienced cold or snow but maybe some ancient instinct is stirring in them and they know big changes are ahead. So, which way is south again?

Sadly, Another Loss

Whooping crane #34-16 was released in Adams County, WI in late September – the same day that #30-16 was released on White River Marsh in Green Lake County, actually.

On Wednesday of this week, this young crane began exhibiting signs of illness. That afternoon, she sequestered herself in standing corn until Brooke ventured in to locate her and flushed her. The following day she seemed lethargic, spending much of the day hock-sitting and on Friday morning, Brooke and Patuxent’s Robert Doyle found her remains. She had been predated.

A necropsy will be carried out at the USGS National Wildlife Health Lab in Madison to determine cause of illness.

This leaves two young Parent Reared cranes in Adams County – Numbers 29-16 and 39-16. On Thursday afternoon, Doug Pellerin spent the afternoon monitoring them to give Colleen and Brooke a break. During his time there, Doug was able to capture the following photos of ‘the nine’s’ as Colleen refers to them.

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As the Crane World Turns…

While 5-12, 4-13 and 8-14 are sorting out their relationship status the ‘Royal Couple’ otherwise known as male 4-12 and female 3-14, seems to have adopted a Parent Reared Whooping crane colt!

Take a look at this video clip to see the trio come flying into White River marsh to roost last night – TOGETHER!

Whooping cranes 4-12 and 3-14 bring Parent Reared colt #30-16 to their roost location for the night.

Whooping cranes 4-12 and 3-14 bring Parent Reared colt #30-16 to their roost location for the night.

Eastern Flock – Whooping Crane Update

Below is the most recent update for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. In the last month we have released most of this year’s cohort of parent-reared juveniles into Wisconsin. A huge thank-you to the staff of Operation Migration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural Resources, the International Crane Foundation, and all of the volunteers who help us keep track of the cranes throughout the year. We appreciate your contribution to the recovery of the whooping crane eastern migratory population.

Population Estimate

The current maximum population size is 109 (50 F, 57 M, 2 U). This total includes wild-hatched and released chicks from 2016. As of 4 October, at least 100 Whooping Cranes have been confirmed in WI, 1 is currently in Michigan, and 4 are in Illinois. The remaining 4 birds have not been confirmed in WI yet this year. See map below.

2015 Wild Chicks

W10-15 has been associating with adult male 24-13. They have spent most of the summer at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, but have been moving around Juneau County throughout September.

W18-15 was associating with adult male 16-04. However, in mid-September (who we presume is) W18-15 was seen with its parents 9-03 and 3-04 in Juneau County.

Parent-Reared 2015 Cohort

14-15 (F) has still been in Jefferson Co, WI throughout September.

20-15 (M) is still in Walworth Co, WI where he has been for most of the summer.

DAR 2015 Cohort

61-15 (F), 62-15 (M), 63-15 (M), and 67-15 (F) continue to be at their wintering grounds in Randolph Co. IL.

65-15 (F) and 27-14 (F) spent part of September in Marathon Co, WI, but started moving around Wood Co later in the month.

66-15 (F) is still in Racine Co, WI.

68-15 (F) has remained in Dunn Co, WI throughout September.

UL 2015 Cohort

1-15 (F) has remained in Rock Co, WI.

2-15 (F) spent all of September in Walworth Co.

6-15 (F) was in Winnebago Co, WI for most of the summer, but during September moved to Adams Co and began associating with male 19-10.

8-15 (F) was in Calumet Co, but moved to Winnebago Co during September.

10-15 (F), and 11-15 (M) were in Dane Co, but moved to Outagamie and then to Winnebago Counties.

2016 Wild Chicks

W7-16 is with parents 29-09 and 12-03 in Juneau Co.

Parent-Reared 2016 Cohort

29-16 (M), 34-16 (F), and 39-16 (M) were released in Adams County near adults 24-09 and 42-09.

30-16 (M) and 71-16 (F) were released at White River Marsh in Green Lake Co, near 4-12/3-14 and 5-12/8-14.

31-16 (M) and 38-16 (M) were released in Marquette County near adults 7-14 and 4-13.

32-16 (F) was released in Outagamie County near 10-15 and 11-15 on 17 September and was found dead on 19 September (see below).

33-16 (F) and 37-16 (M) were released in Juneau Co near adults 12-11 and 5-11.


Parent-reared juvenile 32-16 was found dead 19 September in Outagamie County after release. This chick was likely killed by a coyote.

As the Crane World Turns…

Today is a quiet day on “As The Crane World Turns.” Number 71-16, the young female from ICF, seems to have wandered out of VHF radio range. That’s surprising because the other bird released at White River Marsh, number 30-16 didn’t seem capable of flying very far for the first week of his freedom and 71-16 is a full month younger.

Two days ago I searched the radio waves from every local hilltop but never heard a single beep from 71.  I thought maybe her device was broken or she was was playing radio leap frog. While I looked in one area, she was in another, then we’d trade places like strangers that pass in the night.

In addition to her radio tracking device with its one mile range (ground-to-ground on a good day), she wears a GSM Cellular transmitter to report its location. When Heather received her track history a day or two later, we found that she was hopping back and forth but outside all the usual places.

The track history will tell us where she has been but not who she is with. We are hoping she associates with Whooping cranes but without seeing her, we can’t say for sure. In fact I have not actually seen her since the day after she was released although she is still around the area — we hope.

On episode two of our DRAMA ON THE AIRWAVES, we learned that 4-13, the recently widowed male that Heather and Jo have been monitoring over in Marquette County seems to have dumped the kids and tried to bust up newlyweds 5-12 & 8-14 of White River Marsh.

5-12, the male of that recently formed couple, has had a luckless history with mates and has lost a few in the past. Seems he doesn’t like confrontation and rather than fight for romance, he takes flight for safety. DNR pilot, Bev Paulan watched from the air as 4-13 chased off 5-12 and once again left him mateless.

However, more drama must have unfolded overnight because Wednesday morning 5-12 was back with his new bride 8-14, foraging in one of their favorite fields and 4-13 was nowhere to be found. Lets hope there is no more fowl play afoot.

Stay tuned for the next episode in the ongoing saga of life with cranes. (insert dramatic music)

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