Necedah’s whooping cranes—the next generation

Necedah’s whooping cranes—the next generation

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

As of this writing (Oct. 11th), the next generation of semi-captive whooping cranes at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge near Necedah, Wis. are on standby to head south to winter in habitat in Florida. The birds were scheduled to leave on the 10th, but rain ruined the plan. On the 11th, the birds were airborne with the pilots when they hit a 20-knot wind coming from the south.

As you probably know, the young whoopers learn to fly following ultra-light airplanes flown by pilots dressed, or should I say, nearly entirely covered, in a white cloth material so they resemble adult whooping cranes. The young cranes will follow the ultra-light planes to the Chassahowitza National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

This year’s group numbers 17 birds, all from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. The young birds were shipped by airplane on three different dates because the birds were divided into three age groups. Each group couldn’t be shipped until they were 60 days old, and the hatching dates of the groups varied by as much as 15 days.

Things went smoothly for the young whoopers at the refuge’s crane flight school this year. That, in spite of the fact that an active wolf den was a half-mile from the crane pens, according to Larry Warjowsky, Necedah Wildlife Refuge manager. Larry talked to me in depth about the wolves, cranes and other matters.

“There are two wolf packs in the area, but the pack closest to the cranes is called the Sukerney pack,” said Larry. “The other pack is farther north, and it’s called the Yellow River pack. The Sukerney pack had five or six pups this year, but a couple died of mange. We know this because we tagged four of the pups with ear transmitters. The pups are not big enough for collars like the ones the Sukerney pack alpha male and second-year females are sporting. We had no problems with wolves bothering the cranes this year, but three strands of electric wire around each crane pen area may have helped hold the peace.”

To clarify some things, there are three crane pens, each housing birds according to age and/or pecking order. The wolf den, which is a birthing den, is a half-mile away from pen number one, which is closest to the blind from which people can observe the cranes. I was in the blind twice last year. The first time was to consult on window placement, earth removal in front of the windows and accessibility pertaining to wheelchairs on the path leading up to the blind. This visit occurred, of course, during construction. The second visit was to check the blind post-construction.

This visit also coincided with a public demonstration of young whooping cranes in flight following ultra-light planes. I found the blind very accessible, but before I entered the blind, something about it startled me. It was the camouflaged netting that covered the roof and draped over a big portion of the entering side. It did more than camouflage, it smacked of war—a war to save the birds. And who was I? Dr. Strangelovebird?

As for eagles, Larry Warjowsky said there were no whooping crane-eagle problems this year, though several pairs of bald eagles nested on the refuge. Potentially, golden eagles are a bigger threat, but their visits are much less frequent, and they occur mostly when the whoopers are south. However, golden eagles are seen every month of the year in some areas of central Wisconsin.

I asked Larry if his refuge has become a cornucopia of endangered species, as the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership had stated on the website,, that wolves, whooping cranes, fishers and even a cougar were jostling for territory at the refuge. But Larry was quick to say that the cougar sightings were not confirmed. Whenever I visit the NNW Refuge in the winter, I usually see wolf tracks along the road, but not cougar nor fisher. But I did see a wheelchair track once; it was a big sucker, too.

And speaking of visiting the refuge, this’s year’s Whooping Crane Festival went very well, according to Larry. Actually, the event took place at the town of Necedah’s air strip just outside of the refuge. “Thirty-eight hundred attended,” said Larry. “The event took place on Sept. 21st, and there were people in attendance from eight countries and 14 states. There were people there from New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Argentina, Germany, France, Russia and England. People from the U.S. came from as far away as New York and Texas.”

Maybe George W’s wife, Laura, was there. She’s a birdwatcher. Larry described how this year’s new whooping cranes are getting along with last year’s. “This year’s birds actually chased last year’s birds away when they interfered with flight school. Sometimes last year’s birds would try to follow the ultra lights.”

Four of the five birds that made it back from Florida this spring roost in the refuge, but they sometimes travel off the refuge to feed or explore other wetlands and fields. One of the five cranes is a resident of Horicon Marsh. A couple of the four at Necedah have pair bonded.

I asked Larry if he thought the class of 2001 would try to join the class of 2002 in their flight to Florida. “No, they would probably leave when the majority of sandhill cranes leave here in November.” It’s estimated that as many as 3,000 sandhills can be at the refuge in early November, the majority of which are from farther north. Often as many as 500 a week arrive at the refuge, starting in October.

Larry himself may be heading south this winter for a spell to visit old friends in Quincy, Ill. Larry worked at the Upper Mississippi Refuge, which now includes the old Savannah Army depot. “I know the Rockford area quite well,” said Larry. “I used to shop there, and believe it or not, I’m a Bears fan.”

Larry was raised in Necedah, and it was ideal for him to come home and manage the refuge. In a way, that gives him something in common with the whooping cranes.

As for Doctor Strangelovebird, he’ll be tracking this year’s graduating class of the Necedah Flight School on the Internet.

The doctor might be seen at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuige this winter tracking big wheelchairs. Perhaps the tracks will lead him to a full-grown, full-figured German woman who can pull him out of the snowbanks.

Doctor Strangelovebird, do you have comments? “Yes, George W. mein president. I can fly!!”

It is sad that we as a species have to create the genius of an Operation Migration to save another species from our stupidity. But the stupidity continues as the George W’s of this country dictate massive environmental abuse while bragging of their bird-loving wives. Will the real Doctor Strangelovebird please stand up?

To keep things in positive focus, may the crane flight school classes of 2002 and 2001 reach their destination safely. The first five-year reunion of the class of 2001 will come one year after this unique flight school has closed—a school that may go down as one of the greatest experiments in ornithological history.

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