Spring 2017 News
Looking Back 2001-2015

Hunkered Down for Winter
February 3, 2017 by Jane Duden

All nine of the Class of 2016 juveniles are on suitable wintering grounds. What things are important for a young crane in its first winter?

PR #30-16 with alloparents on wintering grounds
The "Royal Family" on their wintering grounds in Georgia.
By Colleen Chase, January, 2017

Where Are They Now?
The nine juveniles in the Class of 2016 survived their first fall migration and are now on various suitable wintering grounds. Two are in Tennessee, two in Arkansas, two in Alabama, one in Florida, one in Indiana, and one in Georgia with alloparents — together forming the "Royal Family" after a successful adoption.

Life on the Wintering Grounds
The challenges of survival are much greater for the Class of 2016 than for the young cranes led south by aircraft in the past 15 years. This year offers no predator-proof pen. No recorded crane call hailing them back to a safe roost at night after a day of freedom and exploring. No roofed feeding station inside their large enclosure, providing a constant supply of high-protein crane chow and fresh water. No costumed caretaker supervising from a hidden blind and counting them at night to be sure they all got back. This winter's young are scattered, and mostly on their own.

Whooping Crane eating Blue Crab

Brooke Pennypacker

Lessons to be Learned
Wild parents show their young how to find and eat blue crabs, the most important food in a crane's winter diet. For the ultralight-led chicks, crab-easting 'lessons' became the "costume's" job. These human crane experts introduced the young cranes to this important food by dumping out a bucket of scuttling, pinching, blue-clawed crabs. The young cranes and the crabs eyed each other with curiosity, wonder and suspicion. Then one of the cranes usually jumped at a crab, stabbing with that long, sharp beak and jack-hammering against the crab's back. The crab broke apart to become crane food. Soon the rest of the juveniles joined in, pulling and pounding, shaking and breaking a crab's body by slamming it on the ground and pounding its beak through the shell. That's how the young birds discover the weakness in the crab’s defenses and the best way to reach the meat.

The best crane wintering grounds are the salty marsh waters near the Gulf Coast, where blue crabs thrive. When hunting is good, a single crane can eat up to 80 blue crabs in a day. Finding a lot of blue crabs to eat on the wintering grounds makes the healthiest Whooping Cranes for migration, nesting, and raising young during the summer.

Not all the youngsters in the Class of 2016, however, are in the sea-and-marsh wetlands where blue crabs are found. They are instead eating waste corn in fields, snails, tadpoles, frogs, crickets, and bits of larger prey, such as snakes and mice. Without blue crabs:

  • Will the cranes get enough nutritious food to fuel them for their northward migration?
  • If they return to the same wintering grounds in years to come, will they be well-nourished enough for reproductive success?
Juvenile PR 30-16 and his alloparents on migration flight with Sandhill Cranes in December

Klaus Nigge

Roosting Safely
Whooper chicks must also learn where to roost at night to avoid predators. If they roost in water the right depth, they will hear the warning splash of any predator that comes near. Then they can fly away to safety. The aircraft-led chicks had decoys (adult cranes made of plastic) with them ever since they hatched. The chicks saw the plastic decoys as part of their species. Decoys were put in water deep enough for roosting so, by imitating these "phonies," chicks learned to roost in the right places. Whoopers raised in the wild stay close to their parents and other members of their species. In this way, they learn from their own kind where to spend the night in safety. We hope the Class of 2016 already learned that lesson during their first months of freedom in Wisconsin.

Big Adventure Ahead!
By mid March, the young cranes should be heading north to Wisconsin. Will they know when to go? Will they remember the way? Which birds will travel together? We'll be back to share photos, crane mischief, and news all spring!