Whooping Cranes

While on a stroll through my neighborhood last month, I heard the familiar call of cranes approaching from overhead. I slowed my pace but not too much since, you know, Sandhill crane sightings are no big deal these days. (Although, this wasn’t always the case – they were considered near extinction in Wisconsin in the early 1900s.) But as the trumpeting duo neared and flapped into view, I could have sworn I saw black-tipped wings, the tell-tale sign of the endangered and much-studied, Whooping crane. The lighting was not good, they were gone in a flash, and I thought, “nah, couldn’t have been.” Still, I checked in with my friend and colleague, Cully Shelton, at the International Crane Foundation. He told me, “it is possible that you could have seen a Whooping Crane. There are currently 100 Whooping Cranes in the Eastern United States (this total does not include wild-hatched chicks) with approximately 80 individuals in Wisconsin.” He also sent me this identification guide which highlights North American birds with similar size, shape, and coloration to Whooping cranes.

I’m still not certain my sighting can be validated as “Whoopers” but Cully went on to tell me that Whooping cranes had been sighted moving between northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin in the same time frame of my sighting.

Cully also filled me in on some exciting news coming out of the International Crane Foundation (ICF) earlier this summer: four Whooping cranes – a breeding pair and their two chicks – were reintroduced to the wetlands of Wisconsin’s Horicon Marsh. Here’s an excerpt from the ICF press release:

The patriarch of the family has a colorful history. Grasshopper, or 16-11, 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 that Grasshopper had paired with a Sandhill Crane female at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Wisconsin. “Wisconsin’s current Whooping Crane population is so small, we really didn’t like this pairing. We prefer that 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 WCEP, the chick was captured and brought to the International Crane Foundation, where he happily resides today in Crane City.

Grasshopper is back in Wisconsin!

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 choose a more appropriate mate for Grasshopper, a female Whooping Crane named Hemlock, or 18-12. 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.”

This story now continues on the Wisconsin landscape, where researchers 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.

“For an endangered species like the Whooping Crane, every individual – and their ability to reproduce – is critical to the survival of the species,” explained Lacy. “That’s why we go the extra mile to help with their fragile recovery.”

And more good news from ICF: Six wild hatched Whooping Crane chicks in Wisconsin survived to fledging this year, the most since the migratory population was reintroduced in the eastern United States. This news comes as the number of wild Whooping Cranes in the west topped the 500 mark.

Did you know…

Many agree it was the Migratory Bird Act of 1916 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (between the US and Canada) of 1918 that saved the Sandhill crane from extinction. Sandhills were, after all, called the “ribeye of the sky,” according to a quote from Stan Temple in this Journal Sentinel article from 2017.

This same article cites the difficulty in differentiating Whooping from Sandhill cranes as one of the arguments against allowing a hunting season for Sandhill cranes. The International Crane Foundation provides several other reasons here.

Sadly, the Trump administration is doing it’s best to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by deeming bird deaths that result from any act – other than a specific intent to kill birds – as allowable. Find out more from this Washington Post article.

To Do This Month:

Check out Nature Net’s October 2016 blog post featuring International Crane Foundation’s founder, George Archibald, and his amazing storytelling and diplomacy, both used to save crane species around the world.

Don’t miss the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s Crane Congregations Tours in November – sign up today as they fill up fast!

Mark your calendar for April 13th and gear up to join the Annual Midwest Crane Count. Find out more, including how to get involved here.

Origami Crane Craft

Favorite Crane Books

Fall Events

International Crane Foundation

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For Educators:

Educator’s Trunk

If you’re interested in sharing a love of cranes and investigating the historical and current efforts to save Whooping cranes from extinction with your classroom, check out ICF’s Whooping Crane Educational Trunk. The trunk can be reserved online for no cost (other than postage if needed) and includes interactive learning tools such as a crane skull, bird flight diverters, the crane costume used in crane rearing at ICF, and teacher activity packets.

The trunk is “designed to empower educators to share with their students the concepts of crane biology, ecology, conservation, captive breeding and reintroduction. The curriculum consists of a series of activities that are thoughtfully paired with hands-on learning tools.” You can pair your in-class learning with a field trip to ICF or invite an ICF staffer into your classroom to deepen your crane conservation experience. And don’t forget Nature Net offers bus funding to help offset transportation fees to all Nature Net member sites.

Post Note: ICF is currently undergoing an extensive expansion and renovation and will not be open for the 2019 season so, book your field trip to see the brand new crane exhibits in 2020.

For Families:


I’m writing this a little later in the month than usual in part because my October was filled with environmental education conferences. October 9-13 was the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) 47th Annual Conference in Spokane, Washington; and October 18-20 I helped run the Wisconsin annual conference at (Nature Net member site) Upham Woods. As most conferences go, they both provided insight, inspiration, and reason for reflection. In the case of NAAEE, there were also “celebrity” keynote and plenary speakers, like Brady Pinero Walkinshaw of Grist.org, columnist Timothy Egan, Ronald Reagan Library Foundation staffer Janet Tran, and Disney Studios VP Paul Baribault.

Baribault’s work at Disney Studios has largely been spent leading Disneynature, which produces nature films that bring “the stories of the natural world to life as never before,” according to my conference program. Disneynature films include Earth, Oceans, African Cats, Chimpanzee, Bears, Monkey Kingdom, Born in China, and the upcoming Penguins, which will be released in April, 2019. We got a sneak peek at the Penguins trailer and learned that Baribault believes movies can serve as an entry into an otherwise unreachable world and can spark conversations – particularly with children – about animals and how we are connected to them.

Each Disneynature film is tied to a corresponding environmental or conservation organization and a portion of ticket sales – based on first-week attendance – goes to support the work of that organization. They also provide educational materials targeted to grades 2-6. Check out Penguin’s main character, Steve, and his story here:

One of my colleagues attending the conference with me commented on the cringe-worthiness of the anthropomorphism of animals like “Steve.” While I don’t disagree, I’m glad to see a huge powerhouse like Disney stepping up to the conservation plate. If Disney can influence its enormous base-audience to appreciate the glory, beauty, and fragility of the world around us, I’m all for it. What do you think?

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.