Where Are They Now?
Status of the 7 Costume-Reared Chicks

What do you do when 7 young cranes refuse to migrate? If we disrupted their social structure, we figured they would take the hint and fly south. Here's what happened...

Whooping Cranes with Costumed Handler

Costumed caretaker with this year's seven cranes.
Operation Migration

December 14, 2017
by Heather Ray, Operation Migration

Raised by People in Disguise
As you may recall, there are seven cranes in the Costume-Reared group. They were raised by people dressed in baggy white gowns so they don’t look like normal people. The caretakers don’t talk or act like people around the birds so they are unfamiliar with humans. By doing this we can work with them every day until they are released into the wild, yet they will be afraid of normally dressed people when they first see them. These birds are not allowed to see cars, buildings, or other human environments for the same reasons.

A Summer Spent Learning
The 7 chicks were moved from Maryland to Wisconsin on June 21st when they were forty days old. Over the summer they spent time each day exploring White River Marsh. They learned to fly at the same time their wild counterparts would. They were exposed to the marsh and surrounding area beginning in June and learned where to find natural food items and to see the other critters they share the marsh with.

Hanging Out with Adults
Each day they spent more time outside of their pen. The costumed handlers would lead them into the marsh, then sneak away, and hide in the trees to make sure they didn’t get into trouble but to still be close in case they did. Slowly, the chicks began to associate with two adults; Whooping cranes: #5-12 that everyone calls Uncle Henry and #30-16 who was a parent reared bird from the year before. One day in late September they were independent enough that they didn’t return to the safety of the pen and instead roosted overnight with the two adult male cranes.

Ignoring Calls to Migrate
The pen doors were officially closed on October 5th, which meant these seven young Whooping cranes were on their own. They spent most of their time nearby with their two friends and it looked like they were all going to migrate together; at least we had our fingers crossed. When the temperature got cold and it was time to go, the chicks wouldn’t listen. Henry and his friend tried to convince them. They flew in circles and called, and the chicks did follow for a few miles but they turned back and the adults went on alone.

Why Didn’t They Fly?
It’s impossible to know why cranes behave the way they do. We can only guess why they didn’t leave with the adults, but after years of working with them, our guesses are pretty good. These seven birds were a tight group. They always flew together and roosted in the same ponds. Whenever they foraged in a field, they followed each other up and down the rows always staying close. They seemed comfortable and they probably felt safe in their little gang so they didn’t need others to tell them what to do or when to go. Because this was their first year they didn’t know winter was coming, but without the adults to lead them south, their only guides would have to be the Sandhill cranes – but they wouldn’t listen to them either.

First There Were 7
The Sandhill cranes and other Whooping cranes had been heading south and this rebellious cohort showed no signs of leaving so the decision was made to break them up. We figured if we disrupted their social structure, they would take the hint and fly south.

On November 22nd cranes 3-17 and 7-17 were captured and relocated to an area on the Wisconsin River in Sauk County. There were still a thousand or more Sandhills in the area so the team hoped the two young Whoopers would take a cue from them and head south.
Three days later, the duo flew to Fulton County, Illinois – Yay! The plan worked! (Yesterday, these two continued southwest and are now in Jackson County, Illinois).

Then There Were 5
That left five Whoopers at White River Marsh. We gave them a few days to see if the last five cranes would now go on their own but they didn’t. Since the first plan worked, the decision was made to capture two more cranes and do the same thing. Whoopers 4-17 and 6-17 were put in crates and moved to the same area along the Wisconsin River where 3-17 and 7-17 had been released. There were still a couple hundred Sandhill cranes using the area.

That happened on December 1st and 4-17 and 6-17 very casually walked out to the large field to join the Sandhill cranes. A week later, on December 7th, they headed south also and now they are in Effingham County, IL.

Whooping Cranes in Snow

Operation Migration

Now There Were 3
Now there were only three young Whooping cranes left at White River Marsh (cranes 1-17, 2-17 and 8-17)  and the weather was getting COLD.

The team made the decision to wait out the weekend (December 9 and 10) to see if the north winds and cold temperatures would convince these three to finally begin heading south. We had our fingers crossed but if they didn’t, we had a plan B.  

Plan B
Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area in Greene County, Indiana is a wonderful wetland used by many birds during the migrations. When all of this was going on there were 18 adult Whooping cranes at Goose Pond. It is far enough south that sometimes our cranes stay there for the winter. If not, they usually stop in on the way back so it’s a good spot to put three reluctant chicks.

The weekend came and went and the cranes remained in Green Lake County, WI so Brooke and Colleen put the plan B in place and on Monday, December 11th the trio was captured and placed in a temporary pen way out in a field where no one could see them.

Before they could be transported across state lines, they needed to have a veterinarian give them a clean bill of health. Dr. Denise Stempa made a trip out and examined the birds. She had to wear a costume and walk out to the pen where is was muddy and cold. They were all healthy and ready to get out of that pen so Dr Stempa signed their health certificate and they were ready for their long trip to Indiana!

A Drive to Indiana
Just before sunset on December 11th, Whooping cranes 1-17, 2-17 and 8-17 were placed inside individual crates and loaded into a van. Brooke and Colleen made the long drive to Goose Pond overnight. Driving in the dark meant the cranes riding in the back of the van would be calmer and it was easier for the humans too with much less traffic to worry about.

Everyone arrived safe and sound by early morning December 12th, and the three chicks were released in a large area where other adult cranes were just waking up. Numbers 13-03 and 9-05 were there along with two other adult crane whose transmitters are no longer working. They were too far out to get legband information so we are not sure who they were.
At least twelve adults were roosting in that marsh so everyone was hopeful these three new young cranes would find some great role models and that they would spend the winter learning the ropes.

Surprise Departure
Anyone who has worked with Whooping cranes knows that they’re unpredictable and what you hope or want them to do, they probably won’t. While Brooke and Colleen were out grabbing a bite to eat after a long night of driving, these three young cranes decided to FLY SOUTH!

Whooping Crane Tracking Map

Operation Migration and Google Earth

230 Miles, 48 Hours
Number 2-17 wears a remote tracking device that uses cell phone signals. That information is emailed to us and it can be viewed on Google Earth. The last hit from #2-17’s device – at 8 am CT this morning -  placed her 230 miles southwest of Goose Pond where she had just been released 48 hours ago!

The crew listened for signals for the other two and they were gone too, which means all three took to the air very soon after they were released.
We’re not sure where they’ll end up yet but we feel confident they’ll make good habitat choices. These cranes have an uncanny ability to find one another so perhaps they’ll meet up with some adults over the winter and follow them back to Wisconsin in the spring. They know the way back to Goose Pond and they are bound to meet some cranes there.

It’ll be interesting to see just what happens next spring!

In the next update, we’ll let you know where the eleven Parent-Reared Whooping cranes are.

Over and out…

Heather Ray
Operation Migration