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FINAL Whooping Crane Migration Update: May 8, 2001

Today's Report Includes:

Back on Territory!

Brian Johns, CWS

"Whooping crane migration is now almost complete," wrote Brian Johns from the breeding grounds in Canada on May 3. "The first confirmed sighting in Canada was April 18. Group sizes varied from singles, pairs, groups of 3, 4 and 6. Groups of 3 are usually a pair of adults with their young from the previous year. These groups were rare this spring as only 9 pairs with young arrived on the wintering grounds this past year. The last confirmed sighting was of a single young from last year.

Spring is the time that the previous years young strike out on their own. The juveniles spend their first winter with their parents and during spring migration or soon after arrival on the breeding grounds, they separate from their parents. Cranes do not tolerate other cranes on their territories--not even their own young from another year. If the young do not separate on their

Photo Couresty Dalton Muir, CWS

own, the parents drive them out so they can get to the business of re-establishing their territory and begin nest building. Most of the young cranes that separate during migration will continue on to the breeding grounds where they will move around until they find other young cranes to spend the summer with. Occasionally there are sightings of single whooping cranes during summer somewhere along the migration route. These sightings are generally of the previous year's young, who did not fly to the breeding grounds. These birds may wander around in areas that they had stopped at with their parents. In the fall, these young cranes will migrate south to Aransas and join other cranes on the wintering grounds."

One Procrastinator at Aransas
The news from Aransas is: They're outta' there---all but one! Tom Stehn writes:

"The winter whooping crane season is over--ALMOST. I did a census flight on April 27 and found only ONE whooping crane left. All of the other 173 other whooping cranes have migrated, and some should be already sitting on nests in Canada.

The one remaining bird is in the same location where a subadult whooping crane spent the summer in 2000. It is presumably the same bird. Will this bird decide to migrate? It may decide to since we've never before documented a whooping crane that failed to migrate two years in a row. However, it sure seems logical to me that it will stay since all the rest of the flock started north, and yet this one is still here. I'll give that PROCRASTINATOR (a new nickname the remaining crane has earned--don't you think?) a month, and then try to find it to see if it is still here."

Find out the final score sheet from Aransas for the winter:

Wally Jobman in Grand Island Nebraska may have received his last whooper sighting for the year. He told us that only one sighting has been reported since our last update: Four birds, observed April 21-27 in Hughes County, SD, 5 miles east and 3 south of Blunt, SD. Find it on the map and you'll see the whoopers are on the home trail.

"Looks like the whooping crane migration is pretty much over for this spring," adds Wally.

Yippee! Hooray! Operation Migration Cranes Fly Away Home!

Courtesy of Operation Migration, Inc.

The whooping cranes' successful journey north isn't the only migration crane watchers can be thrilled about! Remember the sandhill cranes that followed the ultralight aircraft on Operation Migration in fall 2000? (See Bill and Joe's Excellent Adventure.) Well, we have REALLY exciting news! They're home! The news broke on April 27, 2001, when all but two of the 11 ultralight sandhills flown last fall between Wisconsin and Florida returned to Necedah (say: Nuh SEED uh) National Wildlife Refuge. They descended upon the grass strip where they were trained to follow the ultralight plane---after leaving Florida on February 25 and traveling for 62 days without ANYONE spotting them! That's WILD behavior, which is actually more exciting news than their predictable return. Please read the official press release for more:

Are you wondering about the other two sandhill cranes that started out with Operation Migration but didn't return with the flock? Cranes #8 and #13 may still make it. Crane #13 is the "fashionable late lady" that waited until March 17 to depart Florida. These two are wearing solar radio transmitters that are not as effective as the batter-powered units. Stay tuned to Operation Migration Headquarters (above) for breaking news!

A New Chapter in Whooping Crane History
The success of Operation Migration and the return of the sandhills is GREAT news for the endangered whooping cranes that we track each spring on Journey North. Why? The success of this migration experiment paves the way for the reintroduction of a second, wild, migratory flock of whooping cranes. This means all the eggs won't be in one basket, or all the wild whoopers won't be in the same location--a real risk for losing the entire population of this endangered species to a disease or a human disaster like an oil spill. At this writing, the USFWS is working to finalize a proposed rule that would designate whooping cranes in the eastern part of the continent (covering territory between Wisconsin and Florida) as "experimental nonessential" rather than endangered. Project personnel are hopeful that this reintroduction with up to 12 captive-bred whooping cranes will proceed in the fall of 2001. That means by fall, all eyes could be on Operation Migration with WHOOPING CRANES following the ultralight plane---another step in bringing this magnificent and ancient species back from the brink of extinction!

Nesting is Next: Dancing with Cranes

Dr. George Archibald dances with Tex, who thinks she's his girlfriend.
Photo Courtesy of International Crane Foundation

This year's chicks aren't here yet, but it won't be long! On the summer nesting grounds, a pair establishes a territory and performs elaborate courtship dances and rituals. After the head-bobbing, bowing, leaping, flapping, grass tossing, and trumpeting of courtship, a female crane aged 4 years or older will usually lay two eggs.

What would it be like to dance with a crane during these courtship rituals? George Archibald knows because he has done it--many times! Why? You'll find the story here, along with an answer to the question, "Do whooping cranes mate for life?"

Hey, Baby! The Next Generation

Photo Courtesy of
Brian Johns, CWS

If mating is successful, the female whooping crane lays two eggs. Both the female and male take turns incubating eggs for a period of 29 to 30 days. Although both eggs may hatch, usually only one chick survives the first few months to reach fledging age.

Each egg is cream or olive in color, marked with brown. (For great information about the nests and territory size, see the answers to Challenge Questions #17 and #18, below.) The eggs are large--about 3.9 inches or 98 mm long. They are also valuable, as cranes have just one brood each season. The male and female will incubate the eggs for 29-31 days. The inner membrane (the air cell) of a crane egg breaks about 10 to 39 hours before the baby cranes start pipping. As soon as the air cell breaks, the chicks start to make little sounds from inside their eggs! They make three different calls: contact, pipping, and stress. The chicks' parents purr, possibly responding to or stimulating, maybe even encouraging the babies to pip.

The chicks weigh an average of 114.2 grams when they hatch. It's a safe assumption that their rusty color (see photo) helps them hide more easily. What's next for the baby cranes?

What Babies Must Learn
We asked Brian what the young must learn from their parents. He replied, "Young cranes must learn many things. Some of the most important are:
  • how to feed and what to feed on;
  • how to catch live prey;
  • how to be wary;
  • identifying potential predators--and how to avoid predators;
  • choosing safe roosting spots and feeding areas; and
  • learning a migration pathway."

It's a tall order! But with practice comes skill. Once they arrive in Canada, we wish this season's new crane parents lots of success in nesting and raising their young!

Whooping Cranes for the Future
How many cranes will hatch and survive the summer breeding season? That's the news everyone is waiting for.

This is the last word from us on whooping cranes for spring 2001, but a new chapter is just beginning. As soon as pipping is heard from the whooping crane eggs chosen to be the new Operation Migration whooping crane flock, those eggs will need to get accustomed to the sound of the ultralight airplane that will "teach" them the migration route between the new wild flock's summer breeding grounds in Wisconsin and wintering grounds in Florida. If all goes according to plan, next spring (2002) we'll be watching in awe and wonder to see if the 12-or-so young whoopers return again to Wisconsin like their sandhill predecessors did this spring. They will repeat the migrations as they grow and mature until the age of about four, when they'll start laying eggs that will add more birds to the world's brand new wild flock of migratory whooping cranes. Even though the overall numbers were down this year, these are exciting times. You are witnessing whooping crane history in the making!

Talking About Territories: Discussion of Challenge Question #17
Last time Brian Johns told us the average territory size for a pair of cranes is about 5 square km. We asked, "How big is 5 square km? Name something familiar to you that is about the same size as a crane pair's territory."

Well, five square km is only about a sixth the size of Walt Disney World, but 8 or 9 times the size of Disneyland. That's a big territory! Here's another way to look at it. A robin's average territory is about half an acre. A whooping crane's territory of 5 square kilometers is 1235 acres. This means that 2470 pairs of robins could nest on the territory of ONE pair of whoopers!

Nice Nest: Challenge Question #18
Last time we explained how crane nests are built in water and are about 1 meter across. Some nests are built from the bottom of the pond up, while others are floating nests. The top of the nest is usually about 10 cm above the surface of the water. We asked, "Why do you suppose cranes build their nests as described above?"

Each pair of cranes builds their nest in early spring, and the nest has to stay high and dry for the entire nesting cycle. After laying the first egg it might be five weeks or more before the eggs hatch. After they hatch, the babies often sleep in the nest the first three or four nights after hatching. This all happens during the time of year when water levels fluctuate wildly from snow melt, spring rains, and even early summer droughts. In a driving rainstorm with high winds, waves of water can wash into a nest, dangerously chilling the eggs. So nests with the tops well above the water surface are most likely to be successful.

Year-End Evaluation: Please Share Your Thoughts!
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It's a Wrap!
This is the FINAL Crane Migration Update for 2001. Thank you for joining in the excitement of tracking this magnificent bird's journey north! We'll be back next year to report on the summer breeding season, the journey south, and the exciting project to create a second wild population of migratory whooping cranes with an ultralight-led, escorted migration of captive-bred young whoopers. You won't want to miss a moment of this monumental year!

Copyright 2001 Journey North. All Rights Reserved. Please send all questions, comments, and suggestions to our feedback form

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