Avoiding Predators

(Reposting: Originally published: January 9, 2013)

Over the years, many people have asked us if we have considered teaching the birds to avoid predators and it’s a question we have discussed many times ourselves.

One of the problems is which predator to simulate. In most cases it is hard to determine exactly what killed a bird. The leg mounted transmitter will lead the Tracking Team to the scene of the mortality, but often there isn’t much left. Whatever killed the bird could have consumed it, or scavengers may have found it dead. If there is enough left to be necropsied, medical tests can provide some evidence, but there is not much to be learned if all that is left are feathers and bones.

Bobcats are known predators, as are coyotes and feral dogs. Power line impact is listed as the primary cause of death, but unless the bird is found near wires and reasonably intact, it is hard to know if that was the cause. It could be that the impact injured or stunned the bird and left it vulnerable to predation. Aside from marking all the power lines that dissect wetland habitat and the surrounding fields, there is very little we can do about birds flying into wires they can’t see.

Still we could do some general predator avoidance conditioning. The problem is how?

Teaching animals to avoid certain things is not easy. As an example, the best dog to have if you live near a highway is one that has suffered a near miss with traffic. That lesson will never be forgotten. I have a friend whose golden retriever will run along the ditch for a quarter mile to use a culvert to cross the road, but it took a broken leg to learn that behavior. That’s not a risk we want to take with a predator encounter, either staged or real.

That is not to say that it cannot be taught. There are experts who can teach amazing things to animals and maybe they can offer advice, however there are some complications in our case.

In the wild, a chick would learn avoidance behavior from the parents. Adult Whooping cranes have a range of calls that indicate concern, alarm and fear in escalating volumes. Those calls could be recorded and used judiciously, but we are not sure of the exact message we would be conveying, or what actions need to accompany them. We could be crying wolf and teaching complacency rather than evasion. In the presence of real danger, the adults would take flight and lead the chicks away. Using an aircraft to stage an escape is more complex than simply flying to a safe distance.

When birds from previous generations return to the summering grounds they will occasionally take up residence near our training areas. They can be aggressive in their territorial claims and cause problems with the chicks in training, so we attempt to act like wild parents and chase them off.

Their reaction to our antagonism is surprisingly minimal. Rather than fly away in alarm, they will retreat just far enough. No amount of running or arm waving will scare them off. Many times we have exhausted ourselves running the full length of the runway with the birds trotting ahead just and out of reach. I have personally been lured out into the marsh in pursuit of adult birds only to have to have them fly back to the runway and mock my gullibility with a unison call to mark their victory.

Maybe the fact that we are dressed in a familiar costume is the reason they don’t react as we expect, but it adds to the worry of staging a simulated predator situation. What if we brought in a well trained dog to chase the birds and they didn’t run? What if they simply stood their ground and we ended up trying to explain to the owner why his dog was suddenly afraid to come out of his travel crate?

The lesson we would then be teaching is that taking a stand is better than running away. Taking the first option in the “fight or flight” scenario might lead to problems if a real predator didn’t cease the attack when its trainer called him off.

Predator avoidance conditioning is not simple, and it is made more complex with a creature that we are trying to keep wild. We are open to ideas but it will require serious preparation with lots of options for plan B. So far, teaching them to migrate has proven simpler than teaching them to be wary of furry things with teeth.

An Unfortunate Loss…

We’re sad to report that we’ve lost a young Whooping crane from the Class of ’14. Female crane number 2-14 was taken by a predator late Sunday evening.

Brooke reported all of the cranes except for 2-14 returned to the release enclosure as darkness fell Sunday and it was odd for her not to return with the others after a day of exploring the coastal marsh.

Fearing the worst, Brooke went out yesterday to search for her radio signal and found her very near to the location where the remains of  5-13 were located in November. We’re very sorry…

A quick update on 7-14 – the female that left the St. Marks winter site March 11. High quality PTT hits place her in northwest Alabama this morning. There’s no way of knowing if she’s still traveling with 4-12 & 4-13

Report Your Sightings

We’ve been receiving a good number of public sightings over the past couple of weeks as introduced Whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) advance northward and return to their summer habitats. If you happen to spot a Whooping crane please use this link to report your sighting.

We thought it a good time to remind everyone of the recommended guidelines should you be fortunate enough to encounter a Whooping crane.

  • To protect these Whooping cranes we will not divulge the exact location of the sighting.
  • We ask that you please do not approach them closely, even in a vehicle, to avoid habituating the birds to human presence. Habituation is one of the greatest dangers that whooping cranes face because it puts them at greater risk from vehicle collisions, predation, and illegal shooting.
  • Please be respectful of the property of others and do not trespass.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership encourages birding listserv administrators and managers of social media page(s) to not release exact location information of Whooping cranes in the Eastern flyway. In an effort to protect these young and impressionable cranes, WCEP releases county level location information only.

American Birding Association Principles of Birding Ethics

Rowe Sanctuary Crane Cam

It’s that time of year when we’re receiving reports from the southeastern states of large groups of Sandhill cranes heading north.

Each spring, as many as a half million Sandhills will stop to rest and fuel up at Nebraska’s central Platte River at an 80-mile stretch of the river.

The most popular place to see the Sandhills on the Platte river is the National Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, just outside Fort Kearney. If you can’t make the trip, you can still watch the action via Rowe Sanctuary’s live video feed. You may even see a Whooping crane among the smaller gray cranes…

Thousands of sandhill cranes will stop at the Platte River in Nebraska at the height of their northward migration. Photo: Melissa Groo

Thousands of sandhill cranes will stop at the Platte River in Nebraska at the height of their northward migration. Photo: Melissa Groo

NEWSFLASH! Whooping Crane 7-14 Returning North!

Juvenile female crane no. 7-14 has begun her return migration!

Brooke reported that she failed to return to the winter pen on Wednesday evening with the other six in the Class of 2014 cohort.

Low quality PTT hits placed her north-northwest of Tallahassee that evening. This morning we received two high quality hits that place her approximately 16 miles from our Decatur County, GA migration stopover at 7am this morning.

Colleen and Brooke drove up just a short while ago and confirmed that she is indeed traveling with the two 4’s (4-12 & 4-13). Colleen was able to capture the following photo with her phone.

Personally, I’m not surprised she’s the first to leave. This is the crane that kept getting in front of Joe’s aircraft wing on the southward migration. She always was in a hurry!

7-14, 4-12 and 4-13 are heading north.

7-14, 4-12 and 4-13 are heading north.

MileMaker Prize Winner Announced!

Barbara Maligas of Texas is the recipient of the two week stay at Mot Mot Manor in the wonderful gated community of Roma del Mar in Costa Rica!

Congratulations Barbara!

All 2014 MileMaker supporters had their names entered into a thank you prize draw, which was made last week.

Barbara will enjoy two weeks in the comfort of a private 3 bedroom/3 bath home overlooking the Nicoyan Peninsula. She can spend leisurely time in the in-ground pool, explore the many beaches and nature trails and Howler monkeys will serenade her each morning with their raucous calls that echo through the neighborhood.

CLICK to become a MileMaker supporter today!

Some of the neighbors at Mot Mot Manor, include Howler monkeys, Mot Mot's (center) and the Violaceous Trogon

Some of the neighbors at Mot Mot Manor, include Howler monkeys, Mot Mot’s (center) and the Violaceous Trogon

Whooping Crane Soap Opera

Standing in the blind observing crane pen life is like watching a soap opera. “Yes Darling… there have been others. Your father, your mother, your sister and brother and the entire Chinese Army. But it’s you I love… Only You”!  then break to a commercial featuring a has been, photo shopped celebrity who lost 50 pounds on a miracle diet that you too can enjoy if you just take the time to pull out that credit card and call NOW“! Imagine! Fitting into that old high school prom dress is only a phone call away!”

We watch as the chicks and their two chaperons, the “two fours” (4-12 and 4-13)  fly off to forage at a nearby creek while #5-12 darts into the pen from his hiding spot in the adjoining marsh to madly gulp down as much food as possible before his old buddy #4=12 returns to kick him out.

Whooping crane 5-12 gets his fill of crane chow.

Whooping crane 5-12 gets his fill of crane chow.

Then the aerial dog fight begins as the “two fours” chase poor 5-12 across the sky and back to a nearby ranch where he often hangs out with his friends, the cows. Meanwhile, the chicks watch in confused amazement as the word “Mine” echoes across the marsh from above. “Are we supposed to behave like that when we grow up?” Peanut asked Marsha in confused amazement. “You got it, big guy.  That’s why we stopped watching the evening news.” Marsha replied. “Too depressing”.

Then, in fly the Southwood/Cow Pond birds from Tallahassee, #11 and 15-09*.  They spend a day or so timidly walking the edge of the marsh before gaining the courage to fly into the pen. Next we see the old girl, #15-09, standing happily next to #4-12 as if she’s ready for a change of venue. But soon the violins #4-12 thinks he’s hearing are really the sound of the worm turning and before he can say, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a marsh like this”? She’s morphed into a Charley Manson She Devil and is chasing his feathery butt madly across the sky in an attempt to shorten his length, as the word “Mine” thunders into his ears. Just as with humans, it’s all about territories and pecking order. “Good fences make good neighbors” and “Yes sir.”

Meanwhile, her mate, #11-09, is inside the pen trying to exit by madly pushing his beak through the plastic pen mesh as if under the assumption that anything he can get his beak through, he can get his body through, completely forgetting how he got into the pen in the first place.  But then, he never was very bright.  That’s why I called him “Jim” at Patuxent, after the zoned out character on the old TV show “Taxi”. It would take forever to walk him only a few feet because he never met a dandelion he didn’t like. He’d stand in stunned reverence before each yellow flower as if it spoke to him in a language only he could understand. Not hard to understand why #15-09 wears the pants in that family.

11 & 15-09, along with Whooping crane 4-13 (background). Also taken at the St. Marks NWR release pen in February.

11 & 15-09, along with Whooping crane 4-13 (background). Also taken at the St. Marks NWR release pen in February.

Fortunately, Bev, Scott and later Hillary from Disney are all graduates of the “Dr. Phil Academy of Animal Intervention” and within a week or so the two intruders were gone and back in Tallahassee roosting at the cow pond across the street from the Southwood Housing Development where one night recently there were 27 photographers standing along the fence anxiously awaiting their arrival. Who knows? Perhaps in the end, celebrity is as addictive and intoxicating to cranes as it is to humans. But the limelight burns hot. Very hot!

Meanwhile, back at the pen, life returns to what passes for normal.  The chicks busy themselves doing their chick things while trying to make sense of adult behavior. Optimism, after all, is an essential component of every whooper chick’s anatomy. Sometimes in life, you just have to believe. Soon ‘Mother Migration” will call, the soap opera will move north and the only chance to watch life at the St Marks pen will be the syndicated reruns on “Me TV.” Until then, we watch from the blind… and wait.

“And now a word from our sponsor.”

11-09 preening

15-09* preening

Spring Migration has Started!

It seems the Southwood Whooping cranes, 11-09 & 15-09 (aka Cow pond cranes) have begun their northward journey. They failed to return the evening of March 7th and haven’t been seen since. Coincidentally, they left the same day last spring.


The pair 11-09 (on the left) & 15-09*. Photo taken during one of their visits to the St. Marks release enclosure a few weeks ago.

Also heading north is Parent Reared crane No. 19-14. This youngster migrated successfully last fall with adult pair 7-07 and 39-07. They spent the winter in Lowndes County, GA before also departing March 7th.

Refuge staff at Wheeler NWR in north Alabama report that all Whooping cranes have departed, as well as the majority of the 16,000 Sandhill cranes that spent the winter on refuge property.

Meanwhile back at the St. Marks winter release pen, Brooke reports that the Class of 2014 appear to be getting a bit antsy in that they’ve been dancing more frequently. He also said that warming temperatures are bringing all kinds of tasty critters to the surface so the chicks are having fun probing in the mud.

Typically, the youngsters don’t leave Florida until the last week of March. This spring will be interesting because we trucked the cohort from Lodi, Wisconsin to Carroll County, Tennessee last fall when sub-zero temps and snow made staying in the area unsafe. What will they do when they get back to Tennessee?

This morning, Colleen is traveling to Carroll county, TN to deliver our travel pen/trailer in case we need to round them up. Once she drops the trailer, she’ll head back home to Tallahassee and wait for Brooke’s phone call telling her they’ve left. Then she’ll begin tracking them north.

Each morning I receive PTT data for five of the seven cranes, telling us where they have roosted the previous night. I’ll parse the data and send Colleen coordinates and Google Earth kml files in case she isn’t able to keep up with them. This will at the very least give her a starting point each time they move.

Stay tuned – it should be very interesting…

In Case You Missed it!

This past weekend the Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area near Linton, Indiana celebrated their Marsh Madness festival with our own Joe Duff. This wetland gem is a perfect example of ‘if you build it they will come.’ Re-building the wetland wasn’t completed until 2009 – Just six years ago.

Twenty-four (24) Whooping cranes were recorded utilizing the wetlands and surrounding restored prairie during the 2014 Christmas Bird Count!

Prior to the weekend, Reporter Bob Kissell interviewed Lee Sterrenburg, Principal Bird Monitor for the area and assembled this very interesting audio report.

Bob emailed to say that he had breakfast with Joe at the local ‘greasy spoon’ over the weekend and will let us know when that report is ready as well.

EMP Update

Whooping Crane Update, 1-28 February 2015

The map below indicates the last known location of the Whooping Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population. This map does not include birds that have not been reported for over one month, have likely moved from a previous location or that are long term missing.

Maximum size of the eastern migratory population at the end of the report period was 100 birds (53 males, 47 females). Estimated distribution at the end of the report period included 22 whooping cranes in Indiana, 7 in Kentucky, 7 in Tennessee, 27 in Alabama, 3 in Georgia, 14 in Florida, 18 at unknown locations or not recently reported and 2 long term missing. The total for Florida includes 7 newly released juveniles.

2012 Cohort

No. 4-12 remained at the pensite at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida.

No. 5-12 remained on and near the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida.

No. 7-12 remained in Knox/Greene Counties, Indiana, through at least 15 February. No subsequent reports.

No. 14-12 was found in Jackson County, Indiana, on 1 December and had left this location by 5 December. Reports of a crane in Osceola County, Florida, on 18 January, and 2 and 15 February were likely of this bird.

No. 16-12 was last detected in Jackson County, Indiana, on 6 January. He was confirmed at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, Meigs County, Tennessee, on 8 January and was last detected at this location the following two days. No subsequent reports.

2013 Cohort

No. 4-13 remained at the pensite at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida.

No. 9-13 remained on and near the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Alachua County, Florida, through at least roost on 23 February. He moved to a different location in the same county by the morning of 28 February.

No. 22-13 remained at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, Meigs County, Tennessee, throughout the report period and began associating with male no. 37-07.

No. 24-13 remained at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Morgan County, Alabama, throughout the report period.

No. 57-13 remained in Meigs/Rhea Counties, Tennessee, throughout the report period.

No. 59-13 remained at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Morgan County, Alabama, throughout the report period, usually with male no. 1-11.

2014 Cohort

Wild-hatched – No. W3-14 left Lawrence County, Alabama, and returned to Greene County, Indiana, with nos. 12-02, 29-09, 19-10 and 4-11 on 7 February where she remained.

Ultralight – The seven juveniles remained at the release pen at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla County, Florida.

Parent-reared – No. 19-14 remained with pair nos. 7-07 and 39-07 at their wintering location in Lowndes County, Georgia, throughout the report period.

No. 20-14 remained in Jackson County, Alabama, presumably with pair nos. 9-05 and 13-03 throughout the report period.

No. 27-14 remained with pair nos. 2-04 and 25-09 in Hopkins County, Kentucky, throughout the report period.

Long term missing

Female no. 2-11 was last reported at her wintering location in Marion County, Florida, on 9 April 2013. She has a nonfunctional transmitter and cannot be tracked.

Female no. 27-10 was last detected on the Necedah NWR, Juneau County, Wisconsin, on 22 April 2014. Her transmitter is likely nonfunctional.

This update is a product of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. To access our previous project updates and additional information on the project visit our web site at: http://www.bringbackthecranes.org/

We thank staff and volunteers from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Hillary Thompson, Andrew Cantrell, Sloane Wiggers, Dan Kaiser, Dan Troglin, Rick Houlk, Charles Murray, and John Pohl for tracking assistance.


The Long Goodbye

BevGuest Author Bev Paulan, Wisconsin DNR Pilot and former OM Field Supervisor

Today is my last day here in St. Mark’s. Tomorrow, I head north, back to the land of snow and sub-zero temps. To say I will miss being here is an understatement.  When we first came to St. Mark’s with the class of 2008, I felt like I had come home. The people made it homey, the landscape set the stage and it felt as comfortable as slipping on an old pair of bedroom slippers. When I make my annual pilgrimage down here in the winter, almost everyone on the refuge says to me “Welcome home” and I always answer with a smile saying “I’m happy to be back home”. Some day I do hope to make it home, permanently.

There are so many things that I will miss when I go back north. The warmth is definitely one, but the birds are right at the top of the list. This morning when I went out to the pen, I made sure that I gave each and every bird an extra long look.  I’m not sure when I will see them again. My tracking flights in Wisconsin are over the western part of the crane’s territory – the Necedah area mostly – so I don’t ever get over to White River Marsh or Horicon.  I very likely won’t encounter these birds when I am flying.

My memories of being here with the class of ‘08 are strong and poignant.  I had a favorite that year, and like Tiny Dancer, he, too, would dance with me when I walked into the pen.  His nickname was Puck, like the fairy in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

He earned that name as a small chick at Patuxent because he would rather chase butterflies than follow the costume, and he would flit about the area, running hither and yon with his little wings stuck straight out.  He shot his little fairy arrow right into my heart and it is still firmly stuck there.  He was the first chick to come to me in the release pen the day they left on their first spring migration. He walked over to me, bowed repeatedly and called loudly.

I knew at that moment that he was cutting his ties to the costume and he would leave. I wished him and then entire class of 2008 well and Godspeed on their solo journey north.  Tears came to my eyes with the loss of control and not knowing if I would ever see them again. Unfortunately for both Puck and I, he was mortally wounded by a snowplow in Illinois on the return trip. I still have his temporary chick band and carry it with me wherever and whenever I travel.

This is always in the back of my mind every time I spend time with the chicks here in Florida. It was definitely on my mind as 8-14 greeted me outside the pen this morning and gave me a little dance. I will not be here to see her and the others off later this month. I will be in spirit, though and I know Brooke will call me and let me know they are off and flying north. I will not be able to not worry about their safety. So as I looked at all the chicks and wished them all a safe journey and a long life, I couldn’t help but picture Puck (26-08), and did indeed, shed a tear.

These are all such precious creatures, I have come to know them well, and will worry about each one until I know they are safely back home in Wisconsin.  Even if I don’t get to see them from my plane.

Maturing Crane Kids

The Class of 2014 is still a couple months shy of being a year old but each day they’re shedding more and more of their youthful appearance.

They still have a few of their tawny feathers but very soon they’ll be stark white. Their voices are still fairly croak-ish but by the time they leave St. Marks NWR in a few weeks, their adult calls will echo across the marsh.

Take a look at the comparison photo – See the red skin patch beginning to show on one of the youngsters?

St Mark's cranes 057_RedCrown

CLICK image to enlarge.

Now Available!

We’re pleased to announce that we have a new product available in our marketplace!

This set of 8 notecards features four original paintings by Wisconsin wildlife artist Jimmy Springett, titled Morning Song, Moonglow, Protecting the Young and Jubilance.

Each set contains two of each design and comes with envelopes. Perfect for thank you or thinking of you cards/messages!

Get yours today!

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