Answers from the Whooping Crane Expert

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

Q: Where in the continental US was the last place that the whooping cranes were known to nest?

A: They were last known to breed in the US in Louisiana, around White Lake in the southwestern part of the state. These birds were non-migratory. That Louisiana population was reduced from 13 to 6 birds following a hurricane in August 1940, and the last individual was taken into captivity in March 1950.

Q: There were only five cranes that hatched in the year 2001. What if they don't find a whooping crane mate in their Eastern flock, but instead try to mate with the more abundant Sandhill Cranes?

A: Like humans, Whooping Cranes don’t have to find a mate that is exactly the same age. But, also like humans, Whooping Cranes are only willing and able to mate with their own species. In the case of Whooping Cranes, they recognize their species by how their parents looked, especially keying in on their parents’ faces. These captive birds recognize the Whooping Crane “puppets” as their parents, and great care went into making the faces look EXACTLY like real Whooping Cranes.

In the 1970s, in one experiment, Whooping Crane eggs were hatched and reared by Sandhill Cranes. The Sandhill Cranes made fine parents, but these baby Whooping Cranes, when grown, ignored each other and only wanted to mate with Sandhill Cranes. Of course, every Sandhill Crane had also been raised by Sandhill Cranes, so they wanted nothing to do with Whoopers. That’s why that program was completely unsuccessful.

From: Deephaven, Minnesota

Q: Will the baby cranes follow their parents or the trike?

A: The “ultra babies” follow what they think are their parents—the puppets. When the puppets are on board the trike, the babies follow them.

Q: When will the four year old cranes lay eggs?

A: Two pairs of these cranes laid their first egg this year! Unfortunately, being very inexperienced, they accidentally broke the eggs. That happens to completely wild Whooping Cranes, too. They have their greatest breeding success after a few years of practice.

Q: Who started operation migration?

A: The very first ultralight-led migration of birds was by William Lishman, assisted by naturalist William Carrick, using an ultralight aircraft to lead a flock of 12 Canada geese on local flights. Even from the start this wasn't a single person effort! They recognized the potential for this technique to work for cranes, but as with most hugely important projects, it took a whole team of experts, from scientists and veterinarians who understood how to rear baby Whooping Cranes to the pilots and support team who work so hard every single day far away from their homes to make this project work year after year after year, to the people who help raise the money and get public support, like the wonderful Heather Ray (who shares so much Whooping Crane information with Journey North readers!) to make this kind of project a success. WCEP, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, is truly a team, and would be weaker without all the team members supporting each other and working together.

Q: How much do the cranes eat before they migrate?

A: Before they migrate, the “Ultra-Cranes” are still growing and building their muscles, and eating as much as they can. This is also true of wild first-year Whooping Cranes. The simplest answer to your question is, as much as they can find!

Q: Can the cranes swim in deep water?

A: Babies could swim in deep water if they had to for short distances. Swimming is most common in chicks and involves floating and leg-paddling. But far away from shore, they could get waterlogged or chilled, and would have no way of getting out again. Fortunately, because they stay so close to their parents, they do not find themselves in that awkward situation!

Adult Whooping Cranes are not able to dive, and can not take off from deep water, so they stick to water not much deeper than their legs are long.

Annika, Danielle, and Caitie:
Q: What do you think the population of whooping cranes is going to be in the year 2013?

A: That’s a good question—will you remember to look back in 8 years to see if I am right? Right now the Wood Buffalo/ Aransas flock has 215 birds. I’m hoping that flock is at least up to 250 by 2013, but it’s a little scary because people are going to have to start conserving water to ensure that the blue crab populations in Texas stay healthy. The Florida non-migratory flock has 66 birds now, including 5 babies. I hope they’re up to at least 80 birds by 2013, but again, the birds there have problems with bobcats and bobcats might be getting pretty good at catching them. The WCEP flock is up to 45 this year, including 13 young birds.
Some of these are starting to breed, and we sure hope they can start successfully rearing chicks of their own by next year. But it will take time for them to get experienced at parenting. By 2010, there should be several of these pairs raising babies, and the team will continue to add more young birds to the flock for a few more years, so with luck by 2013, the flock will have at least 100 captive-reared birds and at least 15 or 20 young birds reared by them. That would bring the total non-captive Whooping Crane population to 450.

Dominick and Charlie
Q: What is the ultralite range before it has to fuel up?

A: When fully fueled, these ultralights can fly between 200 and 300 miles. That’s much farther than a Whooping Crane can fly using the flapping flight they need during ultralight migration. Cranes can go farther when they can ride on thermals, which is why the spring return migration is so much faster than the first fall migration.

Q: How does the support group stay with the ultralite every night?

A: Before the cranes take off in the morning, everyone needs to know where they’re going to stop that night. There needs to be enough space for a pen, and the team needs to know that any people around will stay away, not letting the cranes hear human voices or see people. When the birds take off in the morning, the support team heads out, too, straight for the place the cranes are expected to come down to. Very rarely, the cranes are flying so well near the end of their journey that they can skip a stop. One of the pilots can radio the team to let them know they have to go one more stop.

Q: What drives the crane to fly through the night?

A: Usually cranes don’t fly through the night. They may do this when in an unfamiliar place, when they find themselves over inappropriate habitat late in the day, or when they’re in a familiar place and know there will be a good place to land if they keep going.

Q: How do they navigate on cloudy days and nights?

A: When following the ultralight, Whooping Cranes don’t navigate—they just follow. On their return flight, they have an internal compass that probably depends on the position of the sun in the sky, and they also use landmarks. When on their own, they tend to do most of their migration flights on days when there are thermals to help them conserve energy, so they don’t need to worry about navigating when the sky is overcast—those are the days when there are no thermals. On the rare occasions when they fly at night, how do they know where they’re going? We don’t know for certain.

Q: Why did they choose Florida and Wisconsin for migration sites?

A: Florida was chosen for the wintering habitat in part because the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge is secluded, away from automobile traffic and large enough to provide fine winter habitat. Wisconsin was chosen for the same reason—the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is big and has an abundance of food and natural habitat.

Q: What drove 412 to fly three more hours at night?

A: 412 is a unique bird! From the start he’s been an unusually strong flier, and on day 48 last fall, he dropped away just 10 miles from the destination. By himself, he flew 80 miles south, then 80 miles north, landing 8 miles east of the morning's departure site at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge! No one knows why he decided to fly at night one day, but he was the first of the 2004 whoopers to arrive back at Necedah—he must have a pretty good sense of direction!

Mrs. Alt
Q: How many cranes in the past have migrated to other areas besides Necedah?

A: The cranes in the WCEP flock wander a bit—some have been seen briefly in Minnesota, and in Wisconsin. Sometimes they fly off the refuge and explore other areas a bit. And last year some ended up in Michigan for the summer.


Q: Do they migrate to the same place year after year?

A: The Aransas/ Wood Buffalo flock is very consistent. Cranes learn their migration routes from their parents (or from their puppet parents!) Once in a while, some birds will get lost or for some reason or another turn up in different places. Humans will have to intervene when the situation is dangerous for the birds, but otherwise some birds may find themselves settling in new places over the years. If the species truly recovers, one day they may be nesting over a large part of the continent, as they did before the 1800s.

Q: How do they memorize the star patterns if they change in the Fall and Spring?

A: Cranes don’t typically use the stars for navigating. Birds that do memorize the one star that NEVER moves—Polaris. They migrate away from it in fall, and toward it in spring.

James, Ranan, Andrew, Connor, Clay
Q: Why do they go down to Florida instead of any other place?

A: The WCEP team chose Florida because the Chassahowitzka met their needs as a good place for wintering cranes.

Q: Why do the birds go to Wisconsin and not the northeast?

A: Because that’s where they were raised.

Q: Why do the cranes migrate at all?

A: Because the ground and water freeze in winter over their summering range. They’d starve if they didn’t move. One natural flock in Louisiana didn’t migrate, because food was available year-round. And the introduced Kissimmee flock is also non-migratory.

Q: Why don't they stay in Florida?

A: Because their puppet parents taught them to migrate. The Kissimmee flock wasn’t raised to follow adult cranes or an ultralight, and they don’t migrate.

Stella, Jenna, Sarah
Q: How does the crane dance help the cranes produce an egg?

A: When cranes dance with their mates, it gets their hearts beating faster for a little while, and stirs feelings deep inside that stir up their hormones—special chemicals in their blood that get their bodies ready for breeding.

Q: Why do some of the cranes break away from the main group and end up in places they've never been?

A: For the same reason that people get lost, or wander from their group. Cranes, like us and like all birds, have individual differences, and also on such a long journey, wind, rain, unexpected frights like predators, and other odd things can happen that make a bird suddenly take flight, or suddenly have to land. Last year the winds led one group to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, and the birds didn’t want to cross the water, nor did they know how to fly north or south to go around the lake at first.

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