Helping to ensure a secure future for whooping cranes

Helping to ensure a secure future for whooping cranes
A full grown whooping crane returns to its chick after it was flushed when scientists made their move to capture its young. As far as scientists can tell, handling the chicks does not affect the paternal relationship.Photo by John McKinnon.

Twelve whooping crane chicks received transmitter bands last Thursday as part of a scientific project designed to monitor and protect the endangered species both in its summer habitat in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) and in its wintering grounds in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

“We flew over the area on Monday looking for family groups,” said WBNP ecosystem scientist Rhona Kindopp. “What we were looking for were family groups with one chick. If there are two chicks present we don’t land and capture one because we don’t want the two parents and the chick to get separated.”

Kindopp addressed a handful of Fort Smith locals in the park’s theatre Thursday night, minutes after stepping out of a helicopter, to report on the day’s progress.

Kindopp was part of a team of banding scientists including Dr. Philipe Chavez Ramirez of the Platte River Whooping Crane Trust, Barry Hartep of the International Crane Foundation, David Brandt of the United States Geological Survey, Mark Bidwell of the Canadian Wildlife Service, and Wood Buffalo’s own John McKinnon.

“The number of whooping cranes being produced is actually down this year,” said Bidwell. “But we think that has more to do with natural cycles than anything else.”

While in the helicopter circling the nesting area, McKinnon counted 80 adult pairs and 20 or so chicks.

The chicks are easily discernible by their brown feathers and easier to catch because they are currently two to three weeks away from their first flight. After being captured, the crane chicks are hooded to calm them, then they are measured, weighed and a blood sample is taken from them for later analysis.

“These chicks weighed around five to six kilos, which is very normal, and we think that they primarily feed on dragonfly larvae,” said Ramirez. “The adults usually weigh in at around six to seven kilos and feed on snails.”

Brandt designed the transmitters and has refined them to a point in which a signal can be pinpointed to within five or six meters of the animal.

“I am the technical guy on the team. I helped develop the transmitter and so far it has been very successful,” he said.

Each chick receives two bands, one on each leg. One features the transmitter and the other is a traditional identification tag which can be tracked based on its colour, which changes every year.

Now, three years after the project was initialized in December, 2009, the scientists have expressed the need to adjust their focus towards breeding adults.

“We need to begin capturing the adults, which for obvious reasons is much harder,” said Ramirez. “It involves the use of snares and the success rate is much lower.”

“We as scientists are very much behind the curve at this point in time. It will be 2014 or 2015 before we are close to truly understanding them,” added Brandt.

A current concern for scientists working with whooping cranes is the possibility of detrimental effects stemming from the fact that each whooping crane in the world has descended from only six maternal lineages.

“There are currently scientists working with the captive population that have made genetic management their highest priority,” said Hartep. “As for the wild population here, we just don’t know, but that is one of the side benefits of doing these kinds of tests; we are going to work with them in genetic mapping systems to see what we can find.”

It will be two to three weeks before the results of Thursday’s efforts will be released to the public, but those who took time out of their evening to learn a little bit more about an endangered species got a unique look into the issue and all that is being done to improve their situation.

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