Nebraskans Help Track Cranes

By David Hendee

Nine wild whooping crane chicks in remote Canada are wearing high-tech jewelry, courtesy of a pair of Nebraska scientists.

The endangered chicks were outfitted with miniature Global Positioning System transmitters and color-coded identification bands during a milestone research initiative by the Crane Trust, based near Wood River, Neb.

The telemetry banding was a first for wild whoopers in their nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in Northwest Territories, Canada.“It’s a historic moment for whooping crane conservation and for the Crane Trust,” Dr. Felipe Chavez-Ramirez said Monday. Chavez-Ramirez, the Crane Trust science director, led the Canadian enterprise.

Whooping Crane Tagged

Jessica Rempel, left, and Felipe Chavez-Ramirez,attach color bands to the right leg of a whooping crane chick at Wood Buffalo National Park

The GPS devices, he said, will document whooping crane movements throughout the North American migratory route and help identify actual or potential causes of death, such as power lines.

Migration period mortality accounts for more than 80 percent of annual whooping crane deaths, Chavez-Ramirez said. Nearly three dozen whoopers died migrating in 2009. Despite the widely known plight of the species, scientists do not know the main cause or locations of whooper deaths during their migrations.

Only about 260 wild whooping cranes remain. Once nearly extinct, about 500 whoopers exist in three North American flocks.
The Crane Trust owns or manages more than 10,000 acres of land along the Platte River to provide habitat for whooping cranes and other migrating birds.

Wood Buffalo National Park is the only known nesting site of whooping cranes, one of the world’s most endangered species.
Chavez-Ramirez’s team included Jessica Rempel, the Crane Trust’s GPS project leader, and a couple of Canadian biologists. The team scouted the area in a small airplane one day and dropped into the wetlands via helicopter the two next days.

The researchers pursued chicks on foot across wet and brushy terrain and captured the birds by hand. Each chick was measured and weighed, fitted with a telemetry device and checked by a veterinarian. Blood was drawn to determine gender and other things. The birds were released unharmed.

“It was an intense experience,” Chavez-Ramirez said. “We tried to intercept them as they ran. They’d lay flat on the ground, or freeze in vegetation, to hide. Once you get close, they’d try to get you with their beak. We learned to distract them with one hand and grab behind their head with the other.”

Eleven targeted chicks got away.

Chavez-Ramirez said the team was proud of reducing stress on the birds — some birds were captured, handled and released within 17 minutes from the time the researchers jumped out of the helicopter. The longest pursuit and handling time of any bird was 22 minutes.

Each telemetry device is riveted to two bands placed on a chick’s left leg. The device weighs less than 3 ounces. It’s about 2.5 inches long, 1 inch wide and 1.5 inches high. It has a 6-inch antenna. The solar-powered devices have a life expectancy of at least three years.The devices don’t interfere with the cranes’ ability to fly, pair up and nest, Chavez-Ramirez said.

Data from each device is recorded every six hours and uploaded to a satellite every 52 hours. Chavez-Ramirez said scientists already are tracking the chicks’ movement around the wetlands.The scientists also put three colored bands on each crane’s right leg to allow researchers to identify the crane long after the transmitter quits working.

The chicks were born in early June and already have reached their adult height of about 5 feet, Chavez-Ramirez said. The Wood Buffalo National Park cranes will start to migrate south in mid-September.

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