Another First for World Bird Sanctuary
First Ever Captive Hatched Sandhill Crane Reintroduction in the State of Missouri
On Thursday, October 1, 2015, WBS released the first-ever, captive-hatched Sandhill Crane into the state of Missouri. It seemed to take forever for release day to arrive, yet the hatchling Sandhill Crane appeared to grow up and attain adult size within a few weeks. To be exact, he was hatched June 23rd, 2015 and was raised completely by the parents, Shawnee and Menomenee, while on public display at the Sanctuary. It was just over three months from hatch to release.
Earlier, in the month of May, they had laid an egg and did not appear to be caring for it so it was placed in the incubator in the propagation department. That egg did hatch but, sadly, the chick did not survive beyond its’ first week. Shortly thereafter, two more eggs were laid. One was removed and taken to propagation where it was found to be infertile, while the second egg was left with the parents so their care and incubation habits could be observed. Left with the mother, she was seen incubating this egg some of the time. We also observed the egg was often moved to different areas within the approximate 4 foot wide nesting spot the two birds decided upon, which was just inside the doorway of their enclosed shelter. Sometimes the egg was right in the center of the nest while other times it was toward the front or even in the doorway. This was the routine for a little over a month at which time we were on the verge of giving up on the egg. After all, she often left it unattended and rolled it from one edge of the nest to the other regularly. Perhaps she just needed a season or two of practice, or so we thought.
On the sunny and pleasant afternoon of June the 23rd, a visitor stopped at the Favre Wildlife hospital to tell us she thought the egg in the Crane cage might be hatching. She noticed the parents staring at the egg inquisitively while a high-pitched peep seemed to be coming from within. Sure enough, the small hole was observed with binoculars where the baby crane had broken through the egg (pipped) and, yes, he was chirping loudly to announce his arrival. The decision was made to let mom and dad handle the situation as they saw fit. Overnight, the little guy broke free of his shell and then immediately began following the parents wherever they walked. The day-old crane was only 8 inches tall with a red bill and buff colored downy feathers. We would later call him “Clyde” (Walter Crawford’s middle name) since this would be the last bird with which our founder was involved. Clearly, there was no need to worry about Shawnee and Menomenee’s parenting skills. She knew what she was doing with the incubation of the egg and both she and her mate were very thorough in demonstrating foraging skills necessary for Crane survival. Where the parents were shy and timid in the past, they became extremely protective of their young chick. The male especially. He approached anyone who came in the cage aggressively and was ready to defend, so feeding became a “drop and run” kind of exercise on many days.
Offering a variety of items to eat helped “Clyde” grow very quickly. Since cranes are omnivorous, they subsist on moistened dog food kibble, produce, corn, hard-boiled egg as well as mice, chicks and other meats for their captive diet. Over the summer, live minnows, mealworms and crickets were also added to help the crane chick recognize things he might encounter in the wild. Sanctuary Manager Joe Hoffmann explains: “I added whole corn to the diet since they eat a lot of it in the wild and added minnows so he could experience catching live food as well. Their regular food was partially hidden under grass and mulch to urge the foraging necessary to find different items in the natural habitat and it was amazing to see the parents teach him how to search for the food.”
While one challenge was to ensure a healthy Sandhill Crane grew to adult size, the other would be to arrange a suitable time and place to release him. Joe contacted Missouri state ornithologist Brad Jacobs of the Missouri Department of Conservation for his input. Two areas for release were discussed and the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Mound City, MO was chosen. With the assistance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it was determined that the refuge had the best opportunities for the young crane to find other wild cranes with which to flock and forage. The refuge is just north of St. Joseph, Mo and is a regular stop for Sandhill Cranes in migration after they leave the Platte River in Nebraska on their way south. Squaw Creek biologists have even observed Sandhills staying year-round despite cold winter conditions.
With Sandhill Cranes reported at the refuge in mid-September, an October 1 release date was decided upon. Brad Jacobs reserved one of Missouri Department of Conservation’s planes to fly the WBS crew and the young crane up to St. Joseph, which eliminated the long drive. At 6am on October 1st, Joe along with Jeff Meshach, Roger Holloway and Trina Whitener met at the Crane display cage to get the youngster out and ready for travel. Volunteers Jim Kent, Don Nord, Pat McGrath and Cathy Ellebracht were also there to photograph and assist. Joe and Roger entered the cage and strategically got the parents to move to one side while Joe caught up the youngster. While only 3 months old, this juvenile crane wanted nothing to do with people but Joe’s catch went smoothly and Joe held him for the ride to the flight cage where we would test our release process. The day before, a 10X10 camping shelter was set up inside our flight cage from which the crane would be released. It had soft, sheer sides so there was no risk of tangling or trauma. Joe very gradually released the bird on one side and while the youngster walked into the opposite side and looked around, Joe unzipped it using an attached string that ran over the roof of the shelter. Once unzipped, the crane walked out and ran the length of the flight cage and made a short flight. He was then caught up a second time so a hood could be placed over his eyes and wrist bumpers wrapped on the wings. These items were necessary to ensure safe travel in the padded crate that had been prepared. As a result, “Clyde” traveled extremely well and was ready to go upon arrival.
Joe, Roger Holloway and Trina Whitener arrived at Spirit of St. Louis Airport to meet Brad Jacobs and the MDC plane for our 10am scheduled departure. The flight was very smooth and pilot Doug was very enthused to have people and bird aboard. 80 minutes later, we landed in St. Joseph and immediately headed north in our hired vehicle for Mound City. Refuge Specialist Cory Kudrna led us out to the spots where Sandhill crane activity was consistently observed and two Sandhills flew up ahead of us! We tracked them with binocs and after pulling within about ¼ of a mile, came to a stop. Roger set up the shelter while the others kept eyes on the pair of cranes. Joe carefully removed the young crane from his travel crate and Roger took off the hood and wrist bumpers. A size 9 band was attached to the left leg so if in the future this bird is encountered, we’ll know his movements and longevity. Just like in the flight cage earlier, Joe let the young crane in one side of the shelter and let him look around before unzipping the other side. The purpose of this was to avoid a panic flight and let the bird quietly observe his surroundings as he entered the wild for the first time. After a few minutes, while laying completely still on his belly, Joe unzipped the far side of the shelter and the young crane very slowly and carefully stepped out the shelter without drawing any attention to himself. He looked around, roused his feathers and then walked straight across the field, while occasionally looking down into the vegetation as he had done in the cage with his parents over the summer. Once on the other side of the field, he rested in the tall vegetation, instinctively realizing he would be well camouflaged and safe. A short time later he walked back out in the field headed in the direction of the two adults. He then vanished from view in the tall vegetation and, with that; the first-ever captive hatched Sandhill Crane had been released in the state of Missouri.
World Bird Sanctuary wishes to thank the Missouri Department of Conservation for their efforts and support for this release. It could not have happened without this agency’s involvement. In addition, we thank the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge for providing a site for the release. We are proud to call these two organizations partners in conservation. Special thanks to the Kathryn G. Favre Foundation for providing necessary equipment and for sponsoring our transportation home!
This would never have happened without all of us working together. This story is exactly what we are talking about when we say we are continuing the work that Walter “Clyde” Crawford, Jr. started so many years ago. THIS is why we come to work!