Wildness Comes at a Cost
By Joe Duff
Joe Duff works on crane decoys at Patuxent WRC.
Photo Jane Duden

On May 12, 2005, the WCEP Tracking Team announced that the remains of #414 were found in Juneau County, Wisconsin. Feathers and bone were scattered over a large area, indicating a full-size predator killed the birds.

A High Death Toll in One Year
This unfortunately brings to 7 the number of birds lost in the year 2004-2005. It also brings many of us to our knees. We spend so much time nurturing our birds, doggedly adhering to a restrictive protocol, and despite our best attempts to think of them as wild animals, we still become attached. There is satisfaction in maintaining a costume-rearing discipline and the entire team takes pride in the fact that none have yet been tamed. They avoid human environments preferring natural habitat, and appear to be truly wild, but wildness comes at a cost. The rules for the untamed are harsh, and the consequences final. If we want our birds to be wild we must accept that they face real hazards.

How to Avoid Predators?
Still the mortality is so high this year that we can't help but become introspective and question the methods we use to prepare them for release. It may be time to give serious thought to developing and instituting a predator avoidance protocol, or at least become more adept at teaching them the value of roosting in water sufficiently deep and far enough from shore to keep them safe during the night. There must be some way to keep them vigilant and instil in them a natural fear of furry things with teeth. The problem is that being surrogates, we are at best, marginal parents.
Without being taught, our chicks somehow develop a social structure as do wild birds, and instinctively they understand the meaning of the adult calls. We carry digital recorders to broadcast these calls, but our repertoire is limited, and our ability to use them appropriately restricted. It's like teaching a foreign language when you only know 6 words. If wild parents led their chick too close to a danger area and were attacked, they would take to the air and immediately teaching their offspring to be vigilant, what danger areas to avoid, and to take flight at the first sign of trouble. If we set up a similar scenario we could stage the approach of a simulated predator and sound the alarm call but we can't run fast enough to make an proper escape nor can we get instantly airborne. And if this replicated attack is not carried out with enough vigour to seriously scare our charges, they might simple stand in surprise and our imitation predator would have no choice but to stop short of causing injury. If you charge an enemy to frighten it off and it doesn't run, what then? The lesson learned by our chicks would be confusing at best and tolerance to predators at the worst.

Roosting Right
Over the course of the summer season our birds learn to water roost in their overnight pens and we keep it deep enough to teach the proper lessons. However during the migration it is impossible to find wetland sites with aircraft access at each location, so they are forced to roost on dry land. They are protected by the pen but this experience may teach complacency. We hope the lesson is relearned during their stay at the release pen in Florida, but last year that was a problem. Many birds from previous years checked in on this pen before moving on to better habitat. Their interaction with the juveniles was often so aggressive that the young birds were moved into a top netted enclosure that had no provision for water roosting. This experience may have led to complacency, but that would not explain the death, by predator, of older birds that by now should know better.

The Way of Things Wild?
What ever the cause, it will keep us up at night and you can be sure it will dominate the discussions around the camp. We will try our hardest of fix it, but maybe it is just the way of things wild.