BARABOO – The newest member of the International Crane Foundation arrived in his own suitcase last month.
It was also in a heat-controlled container accompanied by Kim Allen of Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Massachusetts.
When he hatched in the ICF on May 12th, the tiny whooping crane could not foresee how lucky it was.
It was born at the world headquarters for its species and within calling distance of all 15 species of crane.
It immediately fell in love with experienced foster parents named Achilles and Aransas.
It had expert human supervision to ensure its development was on the right track.
It would be reared to fly freely in the wild with the aim of fortifying the future of its species.
And its first beeps were accompanied by a special fanfare: It was the first chick to hatch in the newly renovated ICF facility.
“A very welcome arrival, to be sure,” said Marianne Wellington, ICF senior avian breeder and chick rearing manager. “After a year of uncertainty, it’s great to be raising the little ones again.”
The grounds and exhibitions of the ICF were closed to the public in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, security protocols prevented staff from performing artificial insemination in the past year. And no eggs or chicks were brought into the facility.
But 2021 is different. The foundation’s exhibits, which began with $ 10 million in renovation work in late 2018, opened to the public on May 1.
It is the only place on the planet where all 15 living species of crane are on display.
And behind the scenes there is world-class research and animal husbandry.
The little whooper that hatched on May 12th is part of this work.
The chick was named Wampanoag after the American Indians who have lived in Massachusetts and Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years.
All chicks hatched at the ICF this year are named after tribal nations.
It is not yet known whether Wampanoag is male or female. But it has the cinnamon down characteristic of its kind.
And it has shown a strong will, according to ICF staff.
“The evidence is on my hands and arms,” Wellington said.
The ICF was founded in 1973 by George Archibald and Ron Sauey on Sauey’s parents’ farm in Baraboo.
The men who met while studying at Cornell University shared a passion for cranes and wanted to create an organization that would not only protect birds and their habitats, but also help increase their numbers through breeding and reintroduction into captivity .
The ICF is now active in 55 countries around the world.
Of the 15 species of crane worldwide, 11 are threatened or endangered.
Most have plans to help them recover, such as reintroduction efforts.
There are two species of crane in North America: the sandhill and the whooping.
We are lucky enough to be in Wisconsin as both species breed in the state and live seasonally.
Fittingly, both the Sandhill and Whooper wear red roof caps.
But the songbird is the largest bird in North America and has mostly white plumage with black wing tips, while the sand mound is greyish in color.
The biggest difference, however, is in population size: the sand mound is the most abundant species of crane in the world at around 827,000, and the songbird is the rarest at 808, according to ICF.
Many thought the continent’s largest bird was going to die out.
In the 1940s, songbird numbers dropped to 15 individuals who wintered on the Texas Gulf Coast and brooded in northern Alberta, said Hillary Thompson of the ICF.
The species has been listed in the Federal Law on Endangered Species and a management plan has been drawn up to protect the birds.
One of the first steps was to create a captive population to serve as a backbone for further declines.
Biologists would take a single egg from nests (which usually consist of two) in Canada and bring it to zoos or other facilities to be raised.
It evolved into a captive breeding program to produce birds that could be released into the wild.
The wild population still migrates between Alberta and the Texas Gulf Coast and is the largest songbird herd in the world with 506 individuals.
A second migratory herd called the Eastern Migratory Population was initiated in 2001. It nests primarily in Wisconsin and, according to ICF data, numbered 80 in 2020.
The whooping crane recovery plan was jointly drawn up by the United States and Canada. The long-term vision is to list the species from endangered to threatened, Thompson said.
It has two goals: to establish and maintain self-sustaining populations of whooping cranes in the wild that are genetically stable and resistant to events such as storms and disease; and maintain a genetically stable captive population to prevent the species from becoming extinct.
In addition to being key to whooping cranes extinct, the captivity program provides eggs and chicks to release to the wild and helps build the wild population.
In one wildlife riddle, the larger whooping cranes have not even modestly managed to regain their numbers without human help, while their smaller relative, the Sand Mound, has grown steadily over the past 50 years.
Whoopers experience mortality from poaching and other illegal killings, power line collisions, and robbery.
Some areas, such as Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, are also plagued by large numbers of black flies, which have caused songbirds to abandon their nests.
About 20 zoos and research institutions participate in the Captive Whooper program, including the Milwaukee County Zoo, Stone Zoo in Massachusetts, and the ICF in Baraboo.
The Whooper recovery plan involved a variety of techniques, including direct fall releases of captive birds and young cranes raised by costumed humans and guided to migrate by microlights.
The predominant method now uses adult whoopers to raise chicks in captivity. The young birds are then released into the wild at around 5 months of age.
It is hoped that the young birds will learn behaviors from the adult songbirds that they did not learn from humans, and this will result in increased survival and breeding success in the wild.
Overall, ICF is making progress, Thompson said.
“We are learning a lot more about whooping cranes in general and how to reintroduce whooping cranes,” Thompson said in a 2020 presentation. “(We are also learning) about the challenges they face in different areas and what they are like in this landscape, in which they have not lived for a very long time, and a landscape that has also changed a lot since they lived in it. “
Whooping cranes can live well into their 20s in the wild. Since the EMP initiative is only 20 years old, it is only showing its potential.
Wampanoag is the 394th whooping crane raised or housed at the ICF.
The chick is housed with its surrogate parents in a 50 by 60 foot enclosure. It has a pond, an island, and shade.
Wampanoag was immediately accepted by Achilles and Aransas, and within a few days of hatching, it was seen doing short swimming strokes and being fed waxworms and crickets.
Young whoopers can grow 1 inch and gain 20% of their body weight in a day, said Wellington, who has worked with more than 400 whoopers since starting at ICF in 1986.
Now 5 weeks old, the chick is about 1.5 feet tall on its back and weighs about 5.5 pounds, Wellington said.
Its feathers begin to sprout. And Wampanoag is almost big enough to do a grown-up crane thing: tuck its beak behind a wing to rest.
If all goes according to plan, Wampanoag will be joining the wild band of Whoopers in Badger State in late September or early October.
The ICF is trying to release the juveniles near an adult pair of songbirds. It is hoped the boy will work with the older birds and learn safe places to sleep in Wisconsin and join them on the train.
Most of the young whoopers have been released in Horicon Marsh near Horicon and White River Marsh near Berlin in recent years.
From 2001 to 2020, 289 whoopers were released in Wisconsin, according to the ICF.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure Wampanoag is in the next cohort of releases,” Wellington said. “It would be great to see this bird fly over the Wisconsin wetlands and hopefully raise its own brood in the years to come.”
Visit the ICF: The Cranes of the World exhibition at the ICF is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October 31. The address is E11376 Shady Lane Road, Baraboo, Wis., 53913. Visit www.savingcranes.org for more information.