Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge Welcomes Whooping Crane Chicks of the “Class of 2005”
Twenty-one whooping crane chicks have arrived at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin for conditioning in preparation for their fall migration behind ultralight aircraft.
The chicks were flown to Necedah in three “cohorts” by private airplane from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., where they hatched, imprinted on and learned to follow ultralight aircraft on the ground. Following a quick vet check that showed that all of the birds were healthy, they were taken to their new home on the refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The 13 males and eight females of the “Class of 2005” comprise the fifth flock of juvenile cranes to take part in a project sponsored by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing endangered whooping cranes in eastern North America, part of their historic range.
A field team from Operation Migration, Inc., and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center will spend the summer strengthening the social cohesion of the flock and teaching them to fly behind the ultralights. Biologists from the International Crane Foundation will join the field team later this summer. This fall, the team will guide the young cranes on their first southward migration, leading them by ultralight to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Gulf coast, the cranes’ winter home.
In addition to the chicks that will migrate behind ultralights, WCEP biologists are also rearing five additional cranes that will be released this fall into the company of older birds at Necedah in the hopes that the chicks will learn the migration route from adult whoopers.
WCEP is using this “direct autumn release” technique to complement the known success of the ultralight-led migrations. Chicks for direct autumn release will be reared in the field and then released with older birds after fledging, or developing their flight feathers. This method of reintroduction has been extensively tested and proven previously successful with sandhill cranes.
There are currently 42 whooping cranes in the wild as a result of the first four years of reintroductions into the eastern flock. Project biologists continue to monitor the veteran cranes from the Classes of 2001 through 2004, most of which have returned from Florida on their own. Many of these cranes are spending the summer on public and private lands in the central Wisconsin area.
WCEP biologists recently retrieved and brought to Wisconsin two whooping cranes from the Class of 2003 that had spent all of last summer and a portion of this summer in western Michigan. Another crane, number 9-03, last seen in Vermont, has not been spotted in the past two weeks.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership thanks Windway Capital Corporation for donating its plane and pilot to transport the crane chicks from Patuxent.
WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 1,000 feet; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 1,000 feet or, if on a public road, within 500 feet. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view whooping cranes.
The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. There, the young cranes are introduced to ultralight aircraft and raised in isolation from humans. To ensure the impressionable cranes remain wild, project biologists and pilots adhere to a strict no-talking rule, broadcast recorded crane calls and wear costumes designed to mask the human form whenever they are around the cranes.
New classes of cranes are transported to Necedah NWR each June and begin a summer of conditioning behind the ultralights to prepare them for their fall migration. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights at the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes are deemed ready to follow the aircraft along the migration route.
Most of the “graduated classes” of whoopers spend much of their time during the summer in central Wisconsin. They also use state and private lands. It is not unusual for yearling cranes to wander, especially if they are not associating with any male flockmates, who typically select the future breeding territory.
Project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the reintroduced cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make along the way. These biologists, along with others from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, continue to monitor the cranes while they are in their summer locations.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 275 birds in the wild. Aside from the 42 Wisconsin-Florida birds, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 100 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members include the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.
Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project’s estimated $1.8 million budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.
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