Studying Whooping Cranes During COVID-19

Parents 18-03 and 36-09 with their newly hatched chick at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Juneau County, Wisconsin.

The COVID-19 crisis and Safer at Home Orders have affected us all in different ways. As a field biologist, I am certainly not on the front lines of this pandemic, nor is my work essential to society making it through this tough time. So, when the Governor of Wisconsin asked us in April to be safer at home, I stayed in my small apartment, grateful to be healthy and safe. I adjusted as best I could to working from home, sharing space with my partner and occasionally having one of our cats wander into a video call.

I talked to our interns every day, who were wondering if their internship would now consist of looking through our database instead of through a pair of binoculars. We worked on writing reports, learning new skills, analyzing our data and preparing research for publication. Every day we wondered how the cranes were faring in the wild. Had they returned to the breeding grounds? Had any new breeding pairs formed over the winter? Were cranes starting to build their nests? Were they affected by our spring snowstorm?

When Governor Tony Evers lifted some restrictions on work considered essential, we were able to answer some of our questions. We submitted safety protocols and changed the way we operate to accommodate social distancing measures, sanitizing our equipment and wearing face masks. Luckily, we received word we could do some limited fieldwork, focusing on monitoring nesting pairs of the Endangered Whooping Cranes in Wisconsin.

We had already remotely been keeping tabs on a few pairs, in a variety of ways. Some Whooping Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population have remote transmitters that send us GPS points through the cell phone network. We could see when they returned to Wisconsin., When they started spending lots of time in one location in a marsh, we suspected they might be nesting. We also received reports from landowners or the general public when they would see Whooping Cranes on their property, in their neighborhood or while on their daily walks. We started to piece together a few pairs we knew were back and may already had started breeding. We hoped to deploy some cameras on nests to help us monitor the cranes without having to leave our homes.

We got the green light to do some limited fieldwork. No sooner could you say, “Whooping Crane,” and we were off!

Whooping Crane nest with two eggs
Pair 7-11 and 19-10’s nest with two eggs in Juneau County, Wisconsin.

Step one: find the nests! In a typical year, we would have a pilot flying surveys, looking for nests from above. But this year we must find them all from the ground. Luckily, cranes are territorial and tend to build their nests in similar areas from year to year. We started with some pairs we knew may nest early, or were in areas where we had a decent chance of finding a nest. In the first two days, we found five nests, and we found at least five more by the end of April.

Most nest-searching can be done by one person. But some cases call for two people as a safety precaution. When we do any fieldwork with two people together, we make sure to wear face masks, take separate vehicles and adhere to at least six feet of social distancing.

Field staff setting up a nest camera at White River Marsh.
Researcher Nicki takes measurements after setting up a camera near the nest of pair 4-12 and 3-14’s nest at White River Marsh in Green Lake County, Wisconsin.

Step two: set up a camera! We use typical trail or wildlife cameras to take photos every five minutes or whenever it detects motion. By collecting so many photos, we’re able to document the pair incubating eggs, any visitors to the nest (hopefully not predators) and when the eggs hatch.

The first two chicks of 2020, W1 and W2-20, with their parents 12 and 15-11 in Juneau County, Wisconsin. Look for the cinnamon chicks nest to the parent on the nest.

Step three: when the pair is no longer incubating, collect the camera and look for pictures of chicks!

Of the 11 cameras we have deployed so far this spring, at least six pairs have already completed incubation and hatched eight adorable, little chicks! We hope to deploy a few more cameras this month on crane nests or in areas they may take their chicks, so we are still able to learn about the challenges Whooping Cranes face during nesting season. We also want to learn about the successes they are having with their families, as we are staying home with ours.

Story submitted by Hillary Thompson, North America Program Crane Analyst. Click here to learn more about our work in North America.