Fifteen years after Whooping Cranes were first taught to fly from Wisconsin to Florida following ultralight aircraft, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it’s ending the program and scaling back the use of costumed handlers.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, the public-private group that pioneered the method in hopes of establishing a migratory population, has spent about $20 million and released approximately 250 cranes since 2001, yet the number of free-flying birds in the East has remained stuck around 100 since 2009.
The problem, says the service, is that adult Whoopers in the managed eastern flock — unlike their counterparts in the wild western flock — have displayed a consistent lack of parenting skills.
“They can establish pairs, they know how to mate, they can copulate, and they know how to lay eggs,” says Peter Fasbender, a USFWS field supervisor and co-chair of the partnership. “They’re just incapable of parenting.”
Since the birds first nested in 2005, they have laid hundreds of eggs and have hatched 64 chicks in the wild. Only 10 colts, however, have survived to fledge.
The goal, says the partnership, is “to put emphasis on more natural methods of rearing and releasing” young cranes.
This spring at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, in central Wisconsin, a handful of eggs will be removed from nests as part of an ongoing renesting study, says Davin Lopez, Whooping Crane coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The eggs will be taken to the International Crane Foundation, in nearby Baraboo, or to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Maryland, where captive adult birds will raise the chicks.
Then, in fall, the colts will be released with pairs of wild adult cranes whose nests failed. In past years, such surrogate parents have accepted youngsters and taught them the migration route to wintering areas in the Southeast.
The hope is that in five years, when this year’s chicks are old enough to breed, they’ll be better parents.
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