Releasing parent reared birds in not as simple as just opening the gate. First, they have to be flown from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Thanks to the generosity of Windway Capital in Sheboygan, WI nine birds arrived yesterday. The original arrival date of Tuesday was cancelled due to thunderstorms in the area, which could have made for a very rough ride. Once on the ground, all nine were quickly moved into our pen at White River. Note: There are also another three PR birds at ICF that will be released later.
So far, these birds have been reared by real Whooping crane parents. Their only experience with humans was when the vet checked them periodically or when handlers changed their water and added crane chow to their feeders. None of that was done in costume because most of the encounters were negative which, in principal, should make them wary of people. Still, it feels strangely un-natural not to be wearing a costume or to be talking anywhere near them. It is almost sacrilegious – like smoking in a church or treading on a grave. We were so reluctant to break the rules of piety that it took some time before we stopped whispering.
The day after they arrived (today), they were banded and fitted with tracking devices. Each one has a standard VHF transmitter, which we can locate by following the beep of our directional antenna. On the other leg, all but three will carry a satellite transmitter or one of the new GSM units that use cell phone technology. The locations those devices provide can be downloaded and opened in Google Earth to get an idea of their habitat choices. Decking them out in electronics is like equipping your children with smartphones and a stern reminder to call home occasionally as we send them out into the big bad world.
The next question to answer is where to release them and with whom. There are many options and to evaluate them, WCEP conducted a Structure Decision Making process. An SDM is a method of determining the best course of action when a number of variables are unknown. First, all the options are listed. The chicks could be released with failed pairs or cranes that had a chick this spring but lost it. Or they could be released with successful pairs that are already raising a chick and may accept another. Thereafter we could use young pairs that have not yet bred or cohorts of birds that have not yet paired or even single birds looking for a companion.
Each of those options is discussed, evaluated, scored and run through a series of algorithms. The process is repeated until all of the pros and cons have been considered and a priority list evolves. It sounds like a difficult way of arriving at a simple evaluation but there are many variables to consider. As an example, most of the failed pairs nest at Necedah. They might make good alloparents but the Recovery Team proposed that no more whooping cranes should be released into that habitat until the cause of nest abandonment can be mitigated. That problem is exacerbated by the high pre-fledge mortality that has also occurred there. This past spring 23 chicks were hatched at Necedah but only one survived to fledge. Until we know why, there is no justification for introducing more birds there. That means the Parent Reared cranes will be released outside of the blackfly regions at Necedah and in the area around White River and Horicon that we refer to as the Wisconsin Rectangle.
The priority list is the guiding document but it must be matched with the reality of bird distribution and pairing. The plan is to place the chicks, one or two at a time, in small pens where the alloparents forage during the day. This way we can evaluate their interactions and release the chick or chicks when we think the time is right.
Unfortunately, the older cranes have been moving lately. That may be an indication of an early migration or it could be that temperature variations are changing the availability of food sources. Whatever the reason, it makes it hard to predict where the wild birds will be and where to set up the pens.
Just like any Whooping crane project, it is a moving target and no matter how well it is planned, you better have a backup.