The first whooping crane born at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge this year is one wild chick facing long odds that it will survive until it can fly because of nasty predators stalking it.
The chick was born May 8 from the first nest of year at the refuge and was named W1-14, according to refuge, which still makes birth announcements. The W stands for a wild chick, 1 for the first hatch of the year and 14 for year. The proud parents are 13-03 (female) and 9-05 (male).
“It was fantastic,” said Brad Strobel, the wildlife biologist for the refuge. “The cranes are due for a good year. We’ve been struggling with reproduction for several years.”
Problems occur during the 80 days after the whooping crane chicks hatch. That’s when they must try to survive while growing enough feathers and becoming strong enough to fly. Strobel said the chicks often succumb to poor weather and are easy prey for predators roaming the area before they are ready to fly, which is called the fledge stage.
There have been 22 whooping crane nests hatched between 2005 and 2013 in the Necedah refuge, but just six of those resulted in chicks reaching the fledge stage, Strobel said.
“They are a big bird and it takes a while for them to get to adult size and create enough muscle to lift them,” he added. “Across many bird species, (the period before the fledge stage) is probably the lowest time of survival.”
Coyotes, bobcats, raccoons and raptors are among the potential predators of the young whooping cranes, he said. “That’s part of ongoing research. We are trying to learn more about the risks to the chicks,” Strobel said.
This could be a big year for whooping crane chicks in the refuge, Strobel said. Another chick also may have hatched in the same nest that hatched the first one, and there are four other nests ready to hatch chicks within the next week, he added. Two nests outside of the refuge also have hatched chicks, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a cooperative of nine organizations dedicated to sustaining a migratory population of endangered whooping cranes to the eastern United States.
The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Operation Migration, the United States Geological Survey and the state Department of Natural Resources are partnership members that send people to work with the staff at the Necedah refuge, Strobel said. The partnership is directly responsible for the 106 cranes that are part of the eastern United State migratory population, he added.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are about 600 in existence, 445 in the wild, according to the partnership. The only other migratory population of whooping cranes in North America nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Strobel said.
Trevor Lauber, an intern working at the Necedah refuge, was the first human to observe the chick that was hatched last week.
“I was specifically looking for a chick since we thought there was a chance they would hatch today, and sure enough, there was a little, brown fluffball next to the parent sitting on the nest,” he said.