The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership announced today that at least four wild Whooping Crane chicks have hatched this month at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. Eleven additional pairs are currently incubating eggs, raising hopes that the refuge will be home to more young Whoopers in the coming weeks.
The first chick of 2015 hatched on May 3, and at least three more hatched over Mother’s Day weekend.
“We are cautiously optimistic, knowing that for these young birds, the next few months and years of their life will be perilous,” says Heather Ray, director of development for Operation Migration. “We hope that greater numbers may increase the likelihood that some of these young Whoopers will survive to adulthood and ultimately contribute to a self-sustaining population of this endangered bird.”
Researchers monitoring nests from airplanes and the ground report that the cranes built a record 31 nests this spring. Many of those include pairs that re-nested after biologists retrieved their first eggs to hatch them in captivity.
Since the project to reintroduce Whooping Cranes to the eastern United States began in 2001, the population has grown to about 100 birds and 25 breeding pairs. The big disappointment so far has been the cranes’ lack of breeding success. Pairs form, select good habitat, build nests, and lay eggs each spring, but only a handful have successfully fledged chicks. The 2014 breeding season, in which seven wild chicks were hatched and two survived to fledge, has been the project’s best to date.
In past years at Necedah, most birds have been chased off their nests by swarms of black flies. For unknown reasons, black fly numbers this year are currently well below average, a factor that may help more pairs raise their young this spring, says Davin Lopez, the Whooping Crane coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Due to problems created by black flies in past years, biologists are attempting to change the timing of the cranes’ nesting through a “forced re-nesting” study. The idea is that by taking the eggs from Whoopers’ first nests in mid-April when the black fly hatch is at its peak, birds will be stimulated to re-nest and lay a second clutch later, after the flies die off. In short, the hope is that fewer black flies may lead to more healthy chicks.
In late April, 15 eggs were taken from Necedah to the International Crane Foundation in nearby Baraboo. Fourteen of the eggs were found to be fertile and were flown to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, where they are being incubated. The resulting chicks will likely be prepared for release, either through the ultralight-reintroduction method in Wisconsin or in Louisiana.
“We’re encouraged by what we see so far this year,” says Lopez, “and we will continue to work with partners to identify and address bottlenecks to achieving our main goal of building a self-sustaining flock.” — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor