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Baraboo’s Crane City resumes captive breeding program after a year on pause

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After a year on pause, a Baraboo-based wildlife center resumed its captive breeding program this spring, heralded by the arrival of a whooping crane egg laid in a Massachusetts zoo.

“We are just very excited to be producing chicks and being able to release chicks into the wild this fall and kind of get back on board with our efforts for whooping crane recovery,” said Kim Boardman, an aviculturist with the International Crane Foundation.

Her department artificially inseminated at least six captive birds this year after none last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and safety protocols. Four chicks had resulted from the efforts as of last week and are being reared by adult whooping cranes at ICF’s captive breeding facility — known as Crane City — in Baraboo.

“Not having that opportunity last year was hard for us,” Boardman said. “It’s a lot of hard work that goes into it but it’s a really rewarding part of our work, and so I think we’re all really excited to have this opportunity again this year.”

Thanks to coordinated recovery efforts by multiple organizations, the endangered species went from a low of 21 birds living in the wild in the 1940s to 670 in the wild today and another 138 in captivity, according to ICF, but it still faces a variety of threats in the wild, from power line collisions to hunting to habitat loss.

Wampanoag, a chick that hatched May 12 at Crane City, added to that number. Whooping crane pair Sunflower and Alec laid two eggs this year at Zoo New England’s Stone Zoo in Massachusetts, which contacted Boardman, the species survival plan coordinator for whooping cranes. The zoo is one of the program’s exhibit locations but doesn’t hatch or raise the birds, Boardman said, so ICF identified alternative homes for them.

“There’s a lot of logistical details that have to get worked out in placing eggs, and we actually have a weekly call — and sometimes more than that — across all the breeding centers just to update everybody on who’s laying what eggs and who’s where, so that we can identify these homes for birds,” she said.

One went to Baraboo, the other to Virginia, she said.

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A whooping crane egg, laid at Zoo New England’s Stone Zoo in Massachusetts, is prepared for transport May 10, surrounded by warming packs in a padded cooler, to the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo.

While egg transfers are common for ICF, this was Stone Zoo’s first successful one, though Sunflower and Alec have laid fertile eggs in the past, according to Kim Allen, a lead zookeeper there. In a statement to the News Republic, she said she flew to Wisconsin with the egg in a portable, temperature-controlled incubator which she monitored throughout the flight.

By the time she arrived at the International Crane Foundation, the egg had “internally pipped,” the first of three steps in the hatching process, according to a news release. Staff placed it in an artificial hatcher to monitor the process until the chick poked a hole in its shell. That’s when foster parents Achilles and Aransas took their place over the hatching chick, the release said.

“We are so excited that the chick successfully hatched and is doing well,” Allen said.

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Whooping crane chick Wampanoag wades through a pond June 10 with its foster parents Achilles and Aransas at the International Crane Foundation’s captive breeding facility, known as Crane City, in Baraboo.

Achilles and Aransas raise chicks for ICF every year they can, Boardman said, and “they do a really stellar job.”

She said the Baraboo facility has done five other egg transfers this spring. It didn’t do any last year because of COVID-19.

While the breeding program has resumed, one of ICF’s usual practices remains on hold this year, Boardman said. For chicks that can’t be parent-reared, handlers would typically dress in crane costumes to ensure they don’t imprint on humans, but she said ICF decided in February not to do any costume-rearing this year because it requires more close contact between staff members.

She said Wampanoag, who’s “doing great,” and the other parent-reared chicks in Crane City will be released this fall into the Wisconsin wild to join the other whooping cranes in the eastern migratory population. The reintroduction location depends on a number of factors, including the habitat, where the adult birds are in the wild and which pairs would be most likely to help the juveniles learn what they need to know to survive, Boardman said.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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