Nine whooping crane chicks will take to the skies and migrate to southeastern states at the end of October as efforts continue to restore the endangered species to the eastern United States.
The cranes, hatched and raised in captivity at the International Crane Foundation near Baraboo, are reared by costumed biologists resembling cranes. The chicks are part of the direct autumn release project conducted by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a coalition of government agencies and nonprofit organizations.
The chicks learn their migration route by following older birds that have successfully migrated in the past.
In addition, following months of preparation and training, eight other whooping crane chicks were released from the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area near Horicon and began their migration journey behind an ultralight plane.
“We’re excited for the direct autumn release birds to take off and hope the good weather holds for the ultralight-led birds,” said Davin Lopez, whooping crane coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources. “We’re looking forward to following their first journey south to warmer weather. The DNR is once again pleased to be a part of the efforts to restore whooping cranes to eastern North America.”
Every summer, whooping crane chicks are conditioned to follow the ultralight aircraft. This year’s flock was raised in Maryland before being brought to Wisconsin and trained to follow the plane as a surrogate parent.
This technique repeatedly proves effective because of the birds’ natural instinct to imprint on the first creature that nurtures it.
The two release methods – conditioning the chicks to follow behind an ultralight plane and directly releasing young birds as a group in the company of adult birds – are being used to increase the odds that crane chicks will successfully learn the migration routes, continue them in subsequent years and behave like wild birds.
Migration can take anywhere from six to 16 weeks depending on the exact route and weather conditions, according to Lopez.
“First migration is one of many critical life stages for the birds,” he said.
The flock’s process can be followed through the Operation Migration website, operationmigration.org.
“Since 1999, the DNR has played a major role in efforts to restore a migratory whooping crane population in eastern North America,” Lopez said. “The department is a founding member of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and the summer breeding area is in Wisconsin.
“Before these efforts to establish a flock in the eastern United States began, only one migratory population of whooping cranes existed in the wild, raising concerns that any catastrophic event could have completely eliminated the species,” he said. “There are now 101 whooping cranes in the eastern migratory flock because of the partnership’s efforts and nearly 500 total, including nonmigratory flocks.”