Whooping crane 1-17 is, according to his personal biography, a natural-born leader. He is confident, vigilant, quick to take a jab at a potential threat and allegedly able to spot a worm at 50 yards.
This two-year-old crane, born and raised from captive breeding stock at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, is one of a rare species that has been newly restored to North America after overexploitation in the mid-20th century nearly drove them to extinction.
Whooping crane 1-17 appeared this spring on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera in Jackson County, much to the excitement of the Snapshot Wisconsin crew and the researchers stewarding 1-17’s journey across the landscape.
“The conservation story behind [whooping cranes] is a marvelous story, involving a lot of effort and a lot of money,” said Davin Lopez, conservation biologist with the National Heritage Conservation Bureau in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Although they’re recovering, they’re an incredibly rare species – I mean, people come from far and wide to see them – they’re a big, five-foot-tall, charismatic, pure white bird, so they’re pretty striking out there, very visible on the landscape. People find them very beautiful.”
Efforts toward the reintroduction of migratory whooping cranes to eastern North America began in 1999 with the formation of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). WCEP was founded as a collaborative project between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the United States Geological Survey, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.
The whooping crane is critically endangered in North America and has only one major migratory population, the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population (AWBP). This flock breeds in Canada, winters in Texas and comprises 505 birds as of December 2018.
Per the stipulations of the International Whooping Crane Recovery Plan, which outlined the need to establish one or more migratory crane populations in addition to the AWBP, WCEP has overseen the successful establishment of an eastern migratory population (EMP) of whooping cranes. In 2001, 7 individual cranes were guided in their migration from Wisconsin to Florida by aircraft, and 6 were guided back in the spring. As of July 2019, the estimated population size of the EMP is 87 individuals.
One significant barrier to the growth of wild whooping crane populations is the high mortality rate amongst wild chicks. Since 2002, WCEP has supplemented the wild crane population with chicks raised in captivity. These chicks were originally raised through costume-rearing, wherein the chick is raised by a human in costume. In recent years, researchers have transitioned to parent-rearing, where birds are raised in captivity by adult cranes, with minimal human intervention. 1-17 himself was a supplemental, costume-reared chick.
“Depending on the year, we get a certain number of chicks to release to supplement our wild population, and the bird in question, 1-17, is one of those birds. We also rely on natural reproduction, though historically we haven’t had a lot of it. That’s been one of our major struggles,” said Lopez. “Ultimately, we want to get to the point where we have a self-sustaining population out there that is above 100 birds at least, where we wouldn’t have to supplement any more birds.”
Crane 1-17 began his journey in the fall of 2017 in White River Marsh in Wisconsin with his sisters 2-17 and 8-17. When the birds failed to migrate on their own in a timely manner, they were relocated to Goose Pond in Indiana, and from there the trio flew to Talladega County in Alabama, where they spent the winter.
Come spring, the three cranes aimed north, but it swiftly became clear to researchers that they did not know the way back to Wisconsin. They spent some time in Illinois, and then 1-17 and 2-17 split from their sister and moved on to summer in Iowa.
At the end of November 2018, 1-17 and 2-17 took off from a stint in Northern Illinois and headed for the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Though they were met with a snowstorm en route, the pair persevered and were briefly reunited with 8-17 before she migrated to Tennessee in December.
In spring of 2019, 1-17 and 2-17 were observed wandering north and south through Indiana and Illinois, and eventually they found their way back to Wisconsin. The pair went their separate ways in April of 2019, and 1-17 was soon after captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera in Jackson County.
There is something of a learning curve when it comes to migratory behavior, and, as demonstrated by crane 1-17, there is sometimes a significant amount of wandering before whooping cranes grow to a reproductive age and settle.
The privilege of seeing one of these magnificent birds may be reserved for the select few who happen upon them out of sheer luck, but the population has been stable for several years and researchers look to the future of this species with optimism. Rare species like the whooping crane also become more visible as the state’s capacity for monitoring wildlife expands, and Snapshot Wisconsin spearheads this mission with a growing network of trail cameras posted throughout the landscape. As the project progresses, it will become easier to track the species that typically go undetected in wildlife surveys, better informing conservation efforts as well as broadening the public’s experience of Wisconsin wildlife.
“If you want to see a crane, we hope that you’re able to go out and find one,” said Lopez. “They may be rare in Jackson County, but we hope they’re a permanent fixture on the landscape in Wisconsin during the summer.”