BARABOO -- A reintroduction success story took place in August when a whooping crane family was flown to Horicon Marsh courtesy of Windway Capital Corp. of Sheboygan.
The family will call the marsh its home until they migrate south on their own this fall. They will be monitored by staff of the International Crane Foundation as part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.
“This story -- still ongoing -- is really an enormous success for whooping cranes, and reintroduction science, due to the experimental nature of this pairing,” said Anne Lacy, International Crane Foundation crane research coordinator.
The patriarch of the family has a colorful history. Grasshopper was raised at the International Crane Foundation through the Direct Autumn Release Program. He was released at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in 2011.
In 2015, the International Crane Foundation discovered Grasshopper had paired with a sandhill crane female at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. “Wisconsin’s current whooping crane population is so small that we really didn’t like this pairing. We prefer he create more whooping cranes, of course!” explained Lacy.
This pair had a hybrid chick in the spring of 2016. As this was not in the plans of the WCEP, the chick was captured and brought to the International Crane Foundation, where he resides today in Crane City.
In hopes of re-pairing Grasshopper with a female whooping crane, he was relocated in the fall of 2016 to White Oak Conservation, a private, accredited facility in Yulee, Florida. There, the partnership undertook a never-before-attempted experiment -- trying to create a new pairing and return the new pair back to the wild.
The partnership chose a female whooping crane named Hemlock as a mate for Grasshopper. She was costume-reared at the International Crane Foundation, but not released as a chick for health reasons that have now been resolved.
“The plan was to give the pair space in a safe setting to see if they would become a couple,” said Lacy. “If they were successful as a breeding pair, it would be one more step forward in bolstering the wild population.”
As cranes are famous for being very particular in choosing a mate, the WCEP partnership waited with fingers crossed to observe what would happen after introducing the pair.
“Thankfully, it didn’t take long for them to exhibit friendly behaviors,” recalled Lacy. “Within the year they were unison calling together and flying circles around their large enclosure.”
Just as cranes are fussy when it comes to their partners, they are renowned for their mate fidelity once they have forged that bond. This spring, their bond was strong enough for Hemlock to lay eggs.
“Our expectations were met and then some,” Lacy said. “Not only did Hemlock lay two eggs, they were both fertile.” Thirty days later, the first two whooping crane chicks of 2018 hatched.
Researchers now hope the family will acclimate to successfully living in the wild.
“The successful release of this crane family is a testament to the commitment and cooperation of the partners involved, resulting in positive outcomes and support for the long-term recovery of the whooping crane,” said Steve Shurter, CEO of White Oak Conservation.