Birdwatching Canada

A voice for the northern birds

The Taming of #710

In The Field Report From Operation Migration Whooping Cranes

If you have followed this project for any length of time you will know that the single message we repeat at every opportunity is please don’t approach our birds. That request is posted on many partners websites; accompanies every press release; and punctuates our presentations but still there are those that don’t heed the warning.

Teaching birds to migrate is not an easy task. It takes a year-long commitment for every generation we release, and a crew of twelve to compete the migration. Adding an isolation protocol and removing all human elements multiplies the complexity by a factor of ten. We fly our aircraft with peripheral vision limited by goggles that hide our eyes and suffer through the heat of July in full-length costumes. We restrict all access to a small, but essential crew; keep the birds away from buildings and cars, and ensure that their every experience is as natural as we can make it.

Simple tasks like cutting the grass on the training strips adjacent their Necedah enclosures, or making repairs requires extra people to sequester the birds away from the area while the work is completed. Each migration stopover we select must have an isolated area to place the pen and another one to hide the birds while it’s set up. And all the while we live in fear that someone will approach the birds in the belief that their curiosity takes precedence over our hard work.

There are those that believe that our protocol excludes everyone but them; and others that feel tameness in wild animals is a fact of life and that only those that have learned to live in proximity to people will survive.

But Whooping cranes are a paradigm of the kind of wildness that exists beyond the backyard in the regions outside the security of a park. They are denizens of the open and inaccessible wetlands and surely we can make a space for them to exist as they were meant to be.

Most of the people who follow this project understand what we are trying to achieve but there are also those who choose to ignore it. Among them a woman who lives on Tooke Lake in Florida where crane #710 and four other birds wintered last year. The local residents understood the problem of the five cranes being attracted to backyard songbird feeders and agreed to stop the practice while the tracking team used all their tools to flush them away. But one woman ignored the pleas and continued to provide food to attract them.

Of the five birds that used her feeder, number 710 was the worst offender. Completely tamed to people and cars he began to frequent the ethanol plant near the Necedah Refuge once he returned to Wisconsin. Attracted by a free meal of spilled corn, he became accustomed to trucks and traffic. His presence there attracted other birds and often as many as 9 were there at one time. The tracking team tried using our swamp monster but it only worked for a short time and Mylar strips hung on string only worked for a day or so. It didn’t take long before 710 realized that no harm came to him if he didn’t fly away.

Above and beyond the job of monitoring the 79 birds that are now in this population, keeping 710 away from the ethanol plant became a constant problem for the Tracking Team. Believing he was completely corrupted and beyond rehabilitation and any chance of ever being wild again they asked WCEP and the Recovery Team for permission to remove 710 from the study. So last Tuesday he was captured and temporarily moved to the International Crane Foundation. Yesterday, he was relocated to the Lowry Park Zoo in Florida to spend the remainder of his life as a captive display bird.

The ethanol plant will continue to be an attraction to our birds. It is very visible from the air and the spilled corn must be tempting. Maybe in the future we can use a well trained dog as a constant deterrent or treat the spilled corm with foul tasting chemicals. We could try to relocate persistent birds or use a handheld lazar gun called an avian dissuader to flush them away.

After the extreme measures it took to get 710 into the wild and after completing two round-trips to Florida and back on his own, it seems a shame that he will never fly again.

But maybe his fate will reinforce our message that kindness kills wildness and Whooping cranes need a place of their own.

More details on Operation Migration

Filed under: Migration, , ,

Whooper Alert

Growing up in northern Alberta, I distinctly remember flocks of whooping cranes passing over our house. It was a normal as the sun setting. Little did we know what the future held for these huge, whooping birds.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

The whooping crane was designated as an Endangered Species in Canada in 1978. Low population numbers, loss of habitat, slow reproductive potential and questions about the stability of their winter range combined to drastically reduce the population. From a record low of less than 20 birds, protection and management programs have slowly increased the crane population.

At the end of March and early April, whooping cranes who have spent the winter in Texas begin migrating north to their breeding grounds in western Canada. Twice each year the birds make the 4,023 km (2,500 mi) journey up and down North America.

The only natural nesting habitat for these huge birds is Wood Buffalo National Park, a 16,895 km² wetland complex in the boreal forests of northern Alberta and southwestern Northwest Territories.

This past winter has been a particularly hard one for the whooping cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Reserve in Texas. Wildlife managers are worried that some of the cranes may be too weak and malnourished to successfully make their return to Canada this season.

Drought has affected the flock that spends each winter on the Texas Gulf Coast. The birds have had trouble finding food because low water levels have decreased the number of blue crabs, which make up 85 percent of their diet. Reserve staff have set up 13 deer feeders with corn, prohibited crab fishing in and around the refuge, and conducted controlled burns to produce new green plants.

Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane coordinator, said some of the birds, which are part of the only naturally occurring population of whooping cranes in the world, could die during the return trip to Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park because they are so weak and malnourished. Most of the birds will begin the trip in early April.

The flock had a record number of 270 when it arrived last fall. Six adults and 15 chicks had died as of March 15, leaving the flock at 249.

Returning whoopers have already been spotted on their way north in Nebraska this month, and bird watchers along the Central Flyway are on full alert for more sightings.

If you’re in their migration range keep an eye out for these huge white birds. North America’s largest wading bird, they stand up to  4.9 ft (1.5 m) tall, and weigh  13-15 lb (6-7 kg). In flight, their black wing tips are visible, the neck is extended and their long legs extend beyond their tail. Their wingspan measures 6.5 ft (2 m).

Whooping crane in flight

Whooping crane in flight

If you see a Whooping Crane, please report your sighting to the Whooping Crane Conservation Association

Photo credits: Brian Johns, Geoff Holroyd, Environment Canada

Filed under: Migration, Waterfowl, , ,

Weather vs Migration

Disoriented by erratic weather, birds are changing migration habits and routes to adjust to warmer winters, disappearing feeding grounds and shrinking wetlands, a migration expert says.

Failure to adapt risks extinction. Birds face starvation when they arrive too early or too late to find their normal diet of insects, plankton or fish. In the north, some birds have stopped migrating altogether, leaving them at risk when the next cold winter strikes.

Climate change adds another threat to bird life already under pressure from human intrusions like coastline development and loss of habitat.

Greenhouse gases are predicted to raise the Earth’s average temperatures by at least 3.6 degrees. The warming is predicted to drive up to 30% of known animal species to extinction, and migrating birds are especially vulnerable.

Climate change can strike at each stage of their annual trek, from breeding ground to rest stops to their final destination.

Studies have found arctic permafrost and tundra where many species breed are melting. Even moderate rises in sea levels can swamp wetlands where birds stop to feed. Deserts are expanding, lengthening the distance between rests.

“Species that adapted to changes over millennia are now being asked to make those adaptations extremely quickly because of the swift rise in temperatures,” said Robert Hepworth, executive secretary of the Convention on Migratory Species.

“We don’t know how many will survive. We will lose species,” he said.

Filed under: Migration, , ,

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