Whooping Cranes Could Be Wiped Out by Climate Change

Whooping cranes (Grus americana) famously barely escaped extinction during the 20th century. After decades of habitat loss and unrestricted hunting, their population had crashed to just 15 birds in 1941. Today, thanks to intense captive-breeding programs and the protection of the Endangered Species Act, that number has soared to approximately 500 wild birds. Their seven-foot wingspans are once again visible in the sky as they migrate between their summer breeding grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and their wintering grounds in the southern United States.

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Aerial Survey

Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan flew yesterday over both reintroduction areas and reports there is another new chick on the landscape!

W6-17 is the offspring of 36-09* and 18-03.  The chick was off the nest, so Bev suspects it hatched late Tuesday from the pairs 2nd nest.

Other whooping crane chicks seen were:

W1-17 with 5-11 & 12-11* Juneau co. (see photo below) This chick is now 25-27 days old. 

W3-17 with 24-09 & 42-09* Adams co. Now 20 days old. 

W4-17 with 5-10* & 28-08 Marathon co. Now 17 days old. 

W5-17 with 3-11 & 7-11 Adams co. Also 17 days old. 

There are still 12 active nests being monitored.

Other cranes seen/heard during her flight include:

7-07 & 32-09*, 1-04 & 16-07*, 16-02, 10-10* & 41-09, 19-14* & 12-05, 19-11 & 17-11*, 24-13 & 23-10*, 13-02, 19-10 & 25-10. (All observed in/around Necedah NWR) 

3-14* & 4-12 White River Marsh, 5-12 & 30-16, 11-15 in flight (nice eye to eye  view) over White River Marsh, 4-13 & 10-15* and 27-14* & 10-11 Marquette co.

(* indicates female)

W1-17 is 25-27 days old in this photo. Dad is feeding the chick. Photo: Bev Paulan

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What Goes In…

Nothing announces the beginning of a new whooping crane season at White River Marsh like the arrival of our porta-potty.  It magically appeared in camp a week or so after I returned from Florida and by then, it could not have been more welcome. Like an old and dear friend… or a clone of one, it accommodates, commiserates and understands, and most importantly of all, it cares. This cocoon of hope, this confessional of redemption awaits each and every morning to dispense calm and relief. Best part of all? You can sit down assured that no airline has overbooked your seat and no airport gorillas are coming to drag you down the aisle while the Wright Brothers look down from above, shaking their heads and commenting, “We knew it! If God had meant for man to fly, He would have given us wings.” Also, with no one else in camp, the line outside the door is usually wonderfully short.

But like snowflakes, no two porta-potty’s are created alike.  This year’s model seems smaller than last year’s… which is OK, I guess, because we are, after all, environmentalists and a smaller carbon footprint is the ethic of choice. Less really is more. But I have to admit that the economizing takes getting used to. The quarter moon cutout on the old door was reduced to one eighth and really doesn’t let in enough light, especially when they eliminated the automatic door light to save on batteries.  And then there’s that new toilet paper, the kind the early pioneers used for windows and that requires an entire roll to get the job done. And why did they have to hang that role on such a small nail anyway?

I guess the thing I miss most is the music that began to play every time you opened the door. Sadly, the soothing, inspirational theme from, “Fly Away Home” has been replaced by a recording of an old man yelling, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” I mean, I get that most of us in the crew are fast approaching our golden years, but… seriously? And even that wouldn’t be quite so bad if this year’s model was wheel chair accessible. No such luck. This year’s door is so narrow a guy riding a unicycle sitting sideways could barely fit through it. 

Once inside, things are pretty much the same as last year. Except for a couple of new rules. The sign hanging on opposite wall states “No Fishing.” Seems that Joe’s fishing expedition last year to recover his cell phone out of “Big Blue” prompted the State of Wisconsin to declare that all cellphones harvested from porta-pottys to be unfit for human consumption. Too many bones.

And the other new rule? “No Tweeting!” This is clearly due to the fallout from the recent Washington political firestorm highlighting the dangers of tweeting while on the thrown. In fact, Health Officials have declared that “Texting over Effluent” (TOE) has surpassed “Driving under the Influence” (DUI) and Alien Abduction as the Number One threat to public health and safety… to say nothing of National Security.

Then, as I try to exit the place, there is that big sign on the door, “All Ye Who Enter Here, Give up Hope”. Very demoralizing! Why do I get the feeling I’m standing in the open door of an airplane with a parachute on my back about to be pushed out. Perhaps it’s because I am!  Like being reborn. At least now I know how a little whooper chick feels when the door opens and it’s finally released from the bird box after a long ride in the back of the tracking van.

Anyway, if you ever happen to find yourself in the area and want to stop by and take the “old girl” for a test ride, you’re certainly welcome. If I’m not around, just go on inside and make yourself at home, take your time and remember… it’s all about the journey, not the destination… so be patient… because what goes in, must eventually come out. And all good things must come to an end.  Even Field Journal entries. So when you’re finished, just make a wish, then run for the door with everything you’ve got and hope for the best. That’s all there is to it. Sort of.


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Counting (Crane) Eggs Before They Hatch

Years ago, when we worked with Columbia Pictures to produce the movie Fly Away Home we spoke to writers and producers about timing. It seemed the annual breeding cycle of Canada geese didn’t align with their intended shooting schedule and they asked us what we could do about that conflict. They understood that geese nest in the spring and migrate in the fall but had difficulty comprehending that no amount of Hollywood money could change that cycle.

It was funny at the time but in truth, breeding season for geese, and lately whooping cranes, always leaves us in limbo too. Each year the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership makes plan for the coming season but all of our great ambitions hang on the complexities of nature. The outcome can be guessed, estimated, projected or averaged with algorithms for standard deviations, but in the end, the result is about as sure as tossing the dice. 

This year is no different. Twenty-seven eggs were collected from the first nests at Necedah NWR (26 fertile). Both the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the International Crane Foundation produced slightly fewer eggs than they expected but that was balanced by larger production at the Calgary Zoo in Canada So far they have transported twelve eggs to Patuxent and will raise three or four parent-reared (PR) chicks this season. Additionally, the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species (ACRES) in Louisiana has also increased their production. All of this is tentatively encouraging but lots can still happen. Roughly 75 percent of the eggs that are laid hatch and 75 percent of those, result in releasable chicks. In the interim, we wait, and we plan, and we second-guess our decisions. Should we launch the funding campaign, buy the materials or relocate the crew?

This year, WCEP hopes to release up to 15 or so parent-reared birds in the fall. That number is limited by what the captive breeding centers can accommodate. We also planned for a costume-reared (CR) cohort of 6 to 8 whooping cranes to increase the numbers so the population can grow beyond the numbers lost annually to natural causes.

At the last Rearing and Release Team meeting, it was cautiously predicted that there should be enough birds this season to cover the PR priority and for a small CR cohort. That second group would be transported to White River early in the season so the staff at Patuxent can concentrate on parent-rearing.

A small group of Whooping cranes will be costume reared at White River Marsh in Green Lake Co., WI this summer!

The area around the pensite at White River is open for turkey hunting until June 15th so that is the earliest possible date. That will be balanced by the 35-day age limit when it is safe to ship them.

Before that relocation takes place, we hope to expand a portion of our pensite. We also need to set up the water pump, lay the supply hoses, fit the top net and prepare the observation blind. We hope to host a workday or two so any craniac interested in getting their hands dirty for a good cause, please let us know by sending an email with subject line “WRM Volunteer” to info(at)operationmigration.org

At this point it looks like the weekend of June 3-4 is the best time to get the work done and will still give us time thereafter in case we get rained out.

In the meantime, we keep crossing our fingers and counting our eggs before they hatch. 

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Patuxent Update

As of Monday morning we have seven Parent Reared chicks on the ground. Saturday afternoon I got to go out with Robert Doyle and Charlie Shafer to check a little guy that had hatched earlier in the day!

It is so cool to see adults act like Velociraptors! These birds are intent on protecting their little fluff ball, so Robert and Charlie held the adults back while I picked up the chick. Robert and Charlie can’t watch what I am doing so I was instructed to yell “got him” when I picked the chick up and “out” when I was at the door.

He is a tiny guy but they were really happy with his weight gain.

The adult whooping crane parents vocalizing their displeasure at our intention to go into their pen. See the tiny chick behind the feeder?

Tiny whooping crane chick #24-17 being held by Colleen.

Mom checking out her young chick after it was returned to the enclosure.

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Remote Tracking Needs

There are currently 17 fluffy orange chicks being raised by adult whooping cranes at the captive breeding facilities and in September we’ll be releasing them as tall, gangly whooping crane colts in Wisconsin. 

From that point on they will be on their own but like any ‘parent’ we do like to keep track of them. Luckily, technology allows us to track them remotely and from the comfort of our desks IF we can fund these important tracking devices.

This year, Operation Migration has committed to raise the funds needed to acquire five GSM remote tracking units. To help accomplish this, we’ve setup a fun, social campaign on GivingGrid.

The idea is that you select a square representing the dollar amount you can contribute. Then you have the ability to upload a photo – perhaps of you, or your pet, or a place you’ve visited… Just something fun! 

Depending on the level of support you choose, you qualify to receive a thank you gift and there are a number of them available. 

Why not have a look for yourself? Please share the campaign with your family and social media friends using this link: https://www.givinggrid.com/cranetracking/

We have just $6,000 more to raise!

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Report Your Sightings

Yesterday, we received a report of a whooping crane sighting from our friend Pat Fisher. “Fisher” founded The Feather Wildlife Rehab and Education Center near New London, Wisconsin. 

She submitted the following photo, which clearly indicates this crane is male #11-15. This young crane had been in LaSalle County, IL after male #4-13 stole his gal #10-15 from him in early April.

Nice that he’s returned to Wisconsin…

If you see a whooping crane, please try to get the exact legband combination on each leg and fill out this online form.

Male whooping crane #11-15 in Outagamie County, WI. Photo: Pat Fisher.

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Them and Us

Maybe it’s me being petty but I get frustrated when someone cuts me off on the highway and then flips me the bird as if it was my fault. It’s equally annoying when you decline the offer of a telemarketer who interrupted your dinner hour and then calls you back three times – just to be irritating.

Robbie Curtis is one of those annoyances. He illegally used our trademarked corporate name and now he is blaming us. In fact, according to the email he sent us this week, he is going to kill some Sandhill cranes as his revenge.

When searching for our videos on YouTube a few year ago, I noticed that interspersed with clips of us flying with whooping cranes were duck hunting videos also titled “Operation Migration.” The producer, Mr. Robbie Curtis is an avid hunter with lots of followers.

Operation Migration is a 501 c 3 non-profit in the United States and a registered Charity in Canada. Both organizations are federally recognized corporations and have been for many years. One of our responsibilities is to make reasonable efforts to protect our corporate name when it is misused by others. In the eyes of the law, claims of ownership of a trademark sound hollow if you don’t at least attempt to protect it from infringements.

To fulfill that obligation, I followed the links on the YouTube site to report an infraction of their policies. However, my complaint went completely unanswered so I tried again. Eventually I had to assume that with millions of hours of video uploaded to YouTube every day, they didn’t have the resources to keep up with all the complaints, so I took another route.

I wrote a letter (below) to Mr. Robbie Curtis and explained that we were not opposed to hunting and that hunter organizations like Ducks Unlimited have saved critical habitat for many species. I mentioned how hunting licence fees and taxes on ammunition pay for conservation work and how Operation Migration works to bridge the gap between the conservationists who wants to hunt wildlife and the ones who don’t. My response was a short denial that simply read, “You got the wrong guy.” 

Next, I consulted with one of our Directors who is a high-level Government attorney. He also tried to have the videos removed or renamed through the YouTube process – and he hit the same dead end.

This is one of those nagging thoughts that worms its way back into my brain periodically and this spring it resurfaced. Searching for our YouTube channel to check on the nesting pair, I kept seeing Mr. Curtis’s posts and knew that others were following the same route. We are always promoting our site hoping people will get engaged. I can imagine their look of confusion when they searched for Operation Migration and came up with Mr. Curtis’s hunting videos.

Since Google purchased YouTube, they have made many improvements, not the least of which are far better reporting channels. Heather red flagged twenty or so postings all showing duck hunter scenes and displaying the title Operation Migration. We sent copies of our trademark registration to back up our claim and surprisingly, the response was immediate. We are not sure if the videos were removed but the next day when we checked, they were back up or renamed. They are now titled Operation Northwest Migration.

If you are a conservationist who likes to hunt, check out his videos. As I said, we are not opposed to hunting or the posting of the videos, just the illegal use of our name.

Still, Mr. Curtis or Buckshot Robbie as his email address proclaims, was not pleased. He sent us a message the next day titled “Anti-hunter.” He obviously assumed that if we wanted his videos removed we must be a group of tree-hugging, liberals and rather than obey the rules of YouTube and fair business, he fired back with what he thought would be our worst nightmare.

It is true, Operation Migration is opposed to hunting Sandhill cranes – at least for now. But if their numbers continue to increase, there may be a need for hunting eventually. Canada geese are hated by many golfers, homeowners and park visitors only because there are so many of them. If Sandhills ever reach those numbers, the majority of people with hate them too. Regulated hunting can help restore the balance. Conservationists of all types need to work together so that species like Sandhills and Whooping cranes can recover without the added pressure of hunting. But once that process is complete, hunting can keep their numbers in check. Unfortunately, ole Buckshot is still living in the world of us and them. 

Click to enlarge

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Aerial Survey Results

Wisconsin DNR Pilot, Bev Paulan flew a survey over the western half of the state on Friday and reported finding four wild hatched chicks. (* indicates female)

W1 with 5/12-11* Juneau co.

W3 with 24/42-09* Adams co

W4 with 5-10*/28-08 Marathon co

W5 with 3/7-11* Adams co.

Additionally, there are now 13 active nests/re-nests belonging to the following cranes:

32-09*/7-07 – Juneau Co. (renest)

29-09/12-03* – Juneau Co. (renest)

W3-10*/8-04 – Juneau Co. (renest)

9-05/13-03* – Juneau Co. (renest)

18-03/36-09* – Juneau Co. (renest)

34-09*/4-08 – Juneau Co. (renest)

9-03*/3-04 – Juneau Co. (renest)

W1-06*/1-10 – Juneau Co. (renest)

20-14*/37-07 – Juneau Co. (initial nest)

2-04/25-09* – Juneau Co. (new renest)

24/14-08* Suk-Cerney – Juneau Co.


2-15*/28-05* – Marathon Co.

15-11*/38-08* – Juneau Co.

Ok, for those very observant readers that are sitting there now shaking their heads from side-to-side muttering “well that can’t be right. There are two nests with female-female pairs on them” – you’re right!

This is anomalous behavior and the only plausible explanations we’ve been able to come up with are:

A) one of the genders is inaccurate. 

B) they’re incubating infertile/un-viable eggs, or

C) there is a visiting, bachelor male nearby that paid a visit.

Bev will continue to monitor the nests as time permits to see how they progress. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are the photos Bev captured showing three of the chicks found on Friday.

5 & 12-11 with W1-17.

5-10 & 28-08 with whooping crane chick W4-17

Female 7-11 with chick W5-17

International Migratory Bird Day

IMBD is typically recognized on the second Saturday in May – a time when birds have either just completed, or are still migrating north. 

Many thanks to Dr. Jane Goodall for sharing her thoughts about about migratory birds and why it’s critically important that we do what we can to conserve them…

CLICK to read

Do something nice for the birds tomorrow (and every day)

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If we were not optimistic, we wouldn’t have the stamina to work with Whooping cranes. In fact, you have to be looking on the bright side if you are willing to bet years of hard work on building a self-sustaining population. That optimism is what carries us through days like Monday when 3-14 and 4-12 lost their eggs to a hungry coyote.

Since 2011 when we moved from Necedah to White River, the number of chicks we have been able to release each year has been down. In part, that is a result of lower reproduction at the captive centers and the splitting of resources between two reintroduction programs. And reintroduction is all about numbers. There is a critical mass when programs like this hit a mysterious number and things begin to work. Researchers can estimate that pivotal quantity with a population viability analysis but a lot still has to do with luck. Good breeding seasons are balanced by tough winters. Heavy predation at one end of the migration is offset by bountiful food resources at the other and eventually the averages begin to work. Dispersal comes next as the growing population moves to a range wide enough that one local event does not affect the entire population.

California condors are an example of the critical mass. Although they are still critically endangered, the number are starting to work out – slowly – and after 26 years. Trumpeter swans are also experiencing annual growth now that there are substantial numbers in the Midwest. Even the Aransas, Wood Buffalo population of Whooping cranes reached that magic number sometime in the 1970s or 80s when it was large enough that tough years didn’t send the flock into a tailspin. 

None of the Whooping crane reintroduction projects has reached that turning point yet but that is not much comfort when we witness events like we saw on Monday evening. We all knew the numbers were against that pair. Only two birds, still young and inexperienced and at least a season or two from normal breeding success age. Still they did a great job. They were dedicated and vigilant and gave every indication of being good parents. They have learned valuable lessons and next season there will be more pairs like them until the numbers begin to work for them.

It is disheartening and sad but it’s all in the numbers.  We add more birds each year, hedging our bets until the odds are in our favor. Like a wise gambler, we don’t hang all of our hopes on the long-shot. We don’t count on one bet to carry the day. Instead, we keep at it, balancing disappointment with optimism because we know the numbers will eventually work and the bet will no longer be a gamble.

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Nest Predation – More details

We’ve been able to learn a couple of things since the nest belonging to whooping cranes 3-14 & 4-12 was predated Monday evening.

Brooke slogged through the marsh very early yesterday morning to locate the nest and collect anything he could. His hope was to get in and back out before the pair returned… IF they returned.

Firstly, there were two eggs and it was evident both were viable. Egg fragments were collected.

Secondly, the nest is surrounded by water. Here’s a photo showing the nest and surrounding area.

Nest with egg shell fragments. Photo: Brooke Pennypacker

The other important thing we’ve been able to determine is the identification of the interloper whooper. It was indeed male #4-14 (Peanut). Hours spent yesterday staring at video leading up to the arrival of the coyote revealed his legband combination of left leg: white/red/white and right: red/green. 

Peanut (#4-14) on the right being chased away by cranes 3-14 & 4-12. Source: screengrab from the CraneCam

Did he ever pick the most inopportune moment to drop in…

The pair did in fact return yesterday – in fact, just as Brooke reached dry ground, they flew in. A number of folks have asked if a re-nest is possible and it’s early enough in the season that they is a possibility. Time will tell… 

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Live Chat This Week

Join us this Thursday at noon CT for a live chat with various WCEP partners!

Representatives from the Wisconsin DNR, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Operation Migration, and the International Crane Foundation will be on hand to answer your questions and discuss all things involving Whoopers. 

Spring migration is complete, the breeding season is upon us, and the partnership is busy hatching eggs and monitoring nests across Wisconsin. Efforts are underway to again have a group of chicks raised in captivity by adult Whooping Cranes, and we continue to be optimistic that we will also get some more wild-raised chicks to fledging age!

Sign up at this site to receive a reminder just before the chat. http://dnr.wi.gov/chat/expert.html

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