In my lifetime Whooping Cranes were the most endangered species of bird in North America. At one point only 21 whoopers were alive in the wild. Through constant vigilance and a variety of projects Whooping Crane numbers are now around 450 – much better, but still a small enough number that each crane is important. Thus begins the tale of “Bryce,” crane number 70-16 (from leg and neck band numbers), a juvenile bird born an reared at an International Crane Foundation facility near Baraboo, Wisconsin last spring.
Central Wisconsin was a historical nesting area for Whooping Cranes, but that population was eventually extirpated. Now, restoring the population nesting in Wisconsin that historically migrated to Alabama and Florida is perhaps the best hope to bring Whooping Cranes back from the brink of extinction.
The area around Willow Slough, Kankakee and Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Areas as well as other locations along the Kankakee River are on the migration route. So is the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in southern Indiana and migrant cranes stopping by to spend a night or even a few weeks on spring and fall migrations is becoming more common at the Wisconsin flock grows.
Several projects are ongoing with the Wisconsin birds. In a nutshell, Bryce was born in an incubator, reared in a captive situation though paired with two Whooping Crane foster parents on-site then released into the wilds nearby in mid-November with the hopes that he would assimilate with free ranging flocks in the area.
Such a strategy has worked many times previously but Bryce evidently didn’t join up with other birds of his feather. When the groups of birds in the area where he was released felt the urge to migrate south for the winter, they left. Bryce either didn’t get or didn’t heed whatever signal occurs telling the birds it’s time to head out.
When Bryce remained behind, ICF knew they needed to act. “While the cold was an issue, we were more concerned that a lack of access to roosting water would put Bryce at a high risk of predation,” said Anne Lacy, ICF Crane Research Coordinator. “Our team was able to quickly and safely secure him before evaluating his health and driving him south for the winter.”
“While we still aren’t sure exactly what drives some young cranes to migrate while other individuals, like Bryce, might remain behind, we are happy to have the wealth of experience on staff to handle situations like these when they arise,” added Lacy.
This happened once before with another newly-released Whooping Crane chick back in 2013. Whooper-chick identified as 59-13, a.k.a. Latka, failed to head south following other birds of her feather. Adults leading young birds south is important for young whoopers to survive their first migration and learn the route for future migrations. ICF experts stepped in and manually transported Latka to a known crane wintering area. She paired with another Whooping Crane and has made successful migrations ever since.
Soon after Bryce was captured in Wisconsin he was released into the wild for the second time after a 781 mile, 11 hour road trip to warmer weather at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. ICF staff remained at Wheeler for 24 hours to rest up and to ensure Bryce adapted to the relocation. He was soon seen in the company of 69-16, another Whooping Crane released by ICF last fall and one who successfully made her migration in early December. It is expected that Bryce will socialize with others of his fellow cranes over the winter and follow the birds back to Wisconsin in the spring.
ICF’s Whooping Crane efforts are part of a collaborative management and monitoring program operated by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership whose members include the International Crane Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Operation Migration, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and other associated partners. Whooping Crane recovery is a symbol of hope for all endangered species.
Whooping Cranes– Cornell Lab of Ornithology