Answers from the Whooping Crane Expert

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Answers from the Whooping Crane Expert
Special thanks to Laura Erickson, for providing her time and expertise in responding to your questions below.

From: Connecticut
Clay Hill

Q: Hi Laura, My question is about the re-introduction of the Whooping Crane into Florida. It is thrilling to read and view about the human guidance of the birds to acquaint them with the migratory path to MN and FL. But I do not understand if the science and nature people like yourself are confident that the introduced birds will mate on their own. I believe that the goal is to produce 25 nesting pairs (and I assume producing offspring) by 2015. Must there be further human intervention or assistance to achieve the mating, or is there evidence that the birds will know to do this part okay on their own?

A: Mating behaviors are instinctive. The trick in the case of these introduced Whooping Cranes isn't teaching them how to mate--it will be making sure they know WHO to mate with. In an earlier experiment in the 1970s, scientists put Whooping Crane eggs in the nests of Sandhill Cranes. And those baby cranes did what all cranes do, becoming imprinted on their parents. So they grew up wanting to mate with Sandhill Cranes, and none successfully found mates or raised young during their entire lifetimes. There is also the famous case of Tex, a Whooping Crane who became imprinted on humans while a chick at the Patuxent Research Center. She was transferred to the International Crane Foundation, where she found her mate for life in a human, George Archibald. Every spring Tex danced with George for a few weeks, and then was artificially inseminated. One egg was fertile and survived, and the chick was named "Gee Whiz."

Credit: Al Perry

Captive cranes that aren't exposed to humans usually grow up to select proper mates. For example, the Whooping Cranes introduced as permanent residents in Florida are now breeding, and although the young adults haven't had great success yet, they have managed to raise one or two chicks. The cranes in this Ultralight experiment are raised with other cranes, and are fed by a realistic-looking crane puppet. This is an experiment, of course, so scientists aren't certain that these cranes will breed properly. But they've considered many contingencies and designed this experiment as the best hope of creating a second migratory flock of Whooping Cranes. It's certainly a gamble, but they've done their best to make the odds as good as possible. Persistent drought conditions or an oil spill in Texas during winter could wipe out the entire population of migratory Whooping Cranes. That's why a second migratory flock is so important. The cranes raised in 2001 returned from Florida to Necedah on their own in spring, 2002, and made the entire round trip migration on their own last fall and this spring. So far the experiment looks good! And in a few years we'll know whether or not it was a genuine success.

Q: The whooping crane is a big visible delightful animal and it is fun to learn about them and observe their re-introduction in FL. My question is: are there any small neglected or at risk birds that might benefit from the migratory work on the WC's?

A: The Ultralight experiment was first tried on Canada Geese, then Sandhill Cranes, and now Whooping Cranes. But this technique only works with birds that

  • imprint on their parents
  • follow their parents during migration rather than migrating on their own guided by instinct
  • migrate by day
  • fly at slow enough speeds to follow an Ultralight

So many of the techniques would not be useful with small songbirds or hummingbirds. But some of the techniques learned in dealing with raising birds in captivity may indeed have uses in helping other species.

Q: What can I read that gives a good thorough explanation for the mobile and audio behaviors of the whooping crane? Thanks for your devotion to wildlife - in a world of merchants and clerks - you are to be commended for the good work you do. Ed Turbert

A: You can get a start on information about Whooping Cranes at the:

A really good book was published last year about cranes, with an in-depth chapter about Whooping Cranes. It is Peter Matthiessen's The Birds of Heaven.

One excellent resource for learning the basics of crane biology with sections on vocalizations and locomotion, which you may be able to get from your public library, is Lewis, J.C.. 1995. Whooping Crane (Grus americana). In The Birds of North America, No. 153 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington D.C.

Credit: Al Perry
From: Wisconsin
Port Washington High School

Q: What is the average life expectancy of a Whooping Crane?

A: The oldest known banded wild Whooping Crane lived to be 18 years 10 months, but many scientists believe individuals may survive 25 years or more. Most birds that survive to adulthood live to be at least 10 or so.

Q: How can they detect the fish in the water?

A: Cranes have good vision, and do most of their feeding on stuff clearly visible on the ground or in shallow water. Cranes don't eat many fish compared to other things-crabs and snails, frogs, snakes, and a wide variety of plant tubers and waste grains, etc.

Q: How well do they swim? and what animal do they resemble while swimming?

A: Cranes do not typically swim. Chicks may sometimes do some floating and leg-paddling, but for the most part cranes walk in water that is shallower than their legs are long.

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