Rare whooping cranes raised for the wild as COVID-19 rules relax

A year after pandemic precautions all but halted work to raise the world’s most endangered cranes for release into the wild, the efforts are back in gear.

Fourteen long-legged, fuzzy brown whooping crane chicks — one more than in 2019 — are following their parents or costumed surrogates in facilities from New Orleans, Louisiana to Calgary.

“We are thrilled to have bounced back in the wake of the pandemic,” said Richard Dunn, assistant curator of the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans.

Richard Dunn stands well away from a whooping crane enclosure to avoid alarming the white adult and brown chick on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Janet McConnaughey, The Associated Press

Adult whooping cranes are white with black wingtips and red caps, and at five feet high are the tallest birds in North America.

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Only about 800 exist: all descendants of about 15 that survived hunters and habitat loss in a flock that migrates between Texas and Alberta.

Last year, zoos and other places where the endangered birds are bred had to cut staff and reduce or eliminate use of artificial insemination, which requires close work by two or three people, and of having people in shape-disguising costumes raise chicks.

Click to play video: 'Calgary Zoo’s conservation program breeds rare set of whooping crane twins' Calgary Zoo’s conservation program breeds rare set of whooping crane twins

Calgary Zoo’s conservation program breeds rare set of whooping crane twins – Oct 8, 2018

“One chick hatched out at the Calgary Zoo,” Dunn said, adding it had to stay in Calgary because staff couldn’t cross the border to bring it back to either of two U.S.-only flocks.

Read more: What does the Calgary Zoo do to help threatened species?

Both a flock based in southwest Louisiana and one taught to migrate between Wisconsin and Florida by following ultralight aircraft were created in hopes of mitigating disaster, should anything happen to the original border-crossing flock, which is now about 500 strong.

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The original flock is the only one that can survive without human assistance to increase its numbers. Many Albertans spotted the flock as it migrated back north in May, spending several days in the Edmonton area.

Seven chicks hatched this year at the Species Survival Center.

A keeper wearing a “crane suit,” to resemble a parent whooping crane so the chick does not imprint on a human, feeds a recently born whooping crane chick at the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center in New Orleans on Thursday, June 21, 2018. Gerald Herbert, The Associated Press

Aurora, a male produced there by artificial insemination, is being brought up by his mother and “stepfather,” though his mother is temporarily hospitalized after chipping her beak on their enclosure’s chain-link fence.

The other six — five hatched from eggs taken from the wild in Wisconsin and one from an egg bred at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin — are being raised by staffers.

A bird intern at the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center in New Orleans, waves and runs to demonstrate alarm for Tornado, a 42-day-old whooping crane chick on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Janet McConnaughey, The Associated Press

The Milwaukee Zoo is raising one chick from an egg received from the crane foundation, and the foundation and the Calgary Zoo are each raising three chicks.

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Read more: Calgary Zoo’s conservation program breeds rare set of whooping crane twins

The Milwaukee Zoo’s chick will remain captive for breeding, Dunn said.

Dunn said Audubon and the crane foundation are the only facilities that use costume-rearing as well as having mated crane pairs bring up babies, and this year only Audubon did so.

One “wingtip” droops near the floor as bird intern Bobbi Laderer puts on a shape-disguising crane costume to exercise an endangered whooping crane chick at the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in New Orleans. Janet McConnaughey, The Associated Press

Pandemic prospects were still uncertain and vaccines not yet readily available in February, when the foundation had to make its decisions, crane foundation aviculturist Kim Boardman said in an email.

“We expect to costume and parent rear again in 2022,” she said.

Audubon’s keepers do checkups and other tasks the chicks won’t appreciate while wearing regular clothes, to teach them that humans are to be avoided.

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When teaching the chicks to hunt and other crane behaviors, they dress in baggy costumes with the neck of a crane-head hand puppet holding in one loose, black-tipped “wing.”

The puppet demonstrates how to pick up insects from the ground, then passes the tasty morsels to a chick.

FILE: A keeper wearing a “crane suit,” to resemble a parent whooping crane, feeds a recently born chick with her hand in a puppet, at the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center in New Orleans on Thursday, June 21, 2018. Gerald Herbert, The Associated Press

Although the chicks will be given identifying numbers such as L1-21 when they’re released as mottled brown-and-white juveniles late this year, at Audubon they have names: Blizzard, Fog, Hurricane, Lava, Lightning, Tornado — the only female — and Aurora.

It’s been a good year in the wild, too — Louisiana’s 68 adults included a record 24 nesting pairs.

They hatched a record 14 chicks. including two in Texas, and five have survived into July, said Sara Zimorski, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

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FILE: A recently born whooping crane chick walks in an enclosure at the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center in New Orleans, Thursday, June 21, 2018. Gerald Herbert, The Associated Press

Youngsters that live long enough to fly get numbers starting with LW and the number assigned at hatching.

One of Louisiana’s five has been seen flying, and, along with a yearling is counted in the 70-member flock. If all five become fledglings, that will tie a record from 2018.

Read more: Alberta announces sandhill crane hunting season this fall

The Wisconsin-Florida flock numbers about 80, with about 120 birds in captivity. Seven eggs were taken from Wisconsin’s flock to be raised in captivity, at least 14 more hatched in the wild and six of those survived through June.

Eggs are collected from early wild nests because parents will lay a second if the first doesn’t hatch or the chicks die.

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Collections not only increase the number of chicks per year but in Wisconsin, help keep wild chicks from hatching when bloodsucking black flies are at their worst.

Rebecca Arnold, a bird keeper at Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center in New Orleans, holds a “dummy egg” for endangered whooping cranes on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Janet McConnaughey, The Associated Press

One of Louisiana’s Texas-nesting pairs also hatched a chick last year — the first documented since the early 1900s, Zimorski said. Texas is the original flock’s winter home but those birds nest in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta.

Read more: UNESCO says industry, poor governance ‘likely’ endanger Wood Buffalo National Park

This year’s Texas survivor was hatched by first-time parents and is still very young, Zimorski wrote in an email.

“It has a long ways to go!” she said.

A recently born whooping crane chick walks behind a keeper in a “crane suit,” designed to resemble a parent so it does not imprint on a human, in an enclosure at the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center in New Orleans, Thursday, June 21, 2018. Gerald Herbert, The Associated Press

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