Wisconsin whooping cranes hit important nesting milestones

MADISON — Whooping cranes have achieved two important nesting milestones toward creating a self-sustaining flock in eastern North America in their return to Wisconsin this spring.

Officials from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership told the La Crosse Tribune that a pair of cranes has nested at White River Marsh Wildlife Area for the first time, expanding the nesting range in the state in Green Lake County and acting as an important backup to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.

Operation Migration recently organized scientists and others to monitor the pair's nest through an online streaming video camera operating 24/7.

"This is the first nest for these birds. We've been waiting for it for a long time," said Heather Ray, a spokeswoman for Operation Migration, which began the reintroduction effort in 2001 with ultralight aircraft flights that led cranes in their migration. "To be able to watch first hand, it's really cool stuff."

Meanwhile, partnership officials said two cranes nesting in Necedah are the first to nest in the state resulting from a released "parent-reared" crane, a bird reared by a parent crane in captivity rather than human caretakers in costumes.

"We're real excited we've reached these two milestones and that the public can be involved in watching it happen," said Georgia Parham, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's always good to have a nesting range expand."

Parham said the Necedah nest is encouraging because experts are trying to create methods to raise the chicks in the most natural setting possible.

Partnership officials said Wisconsin Natural Resources Department pilot Beverly Paulan found both pairs of cranes during the same weekly aerial survey earlier this month. The population of the endangered species in the eastern flock has gone from zero to more than 100 cranes since reintroduction efforts began in 2001, according to the partnership.

"This is happening right here in Wisconsin," Ray said.

Partnership officials said the flock isn't considered self-sustaining yet. The group tries to reduce human interaction with captive-reared birds in the hopes of raising more attentive cranes and reducing chick mortality once captive-reared birds become parents.