The First Flight of Lucky

By Marty Folk, Wildlife Biologist, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The first and only video that comprehensively portrays the life history of a pair of whooping cranes raising a chick in the wild

In 2002 a pair of reintroduced whooping cranes nested in an area of central Florida that made it possible to observe and document their entire breeding season, from nest-building through the successful fledging of a chick. Never before had anyone witnessed this complete cycle in the wild, let alone capture it on video.

This chick was the first whooping crane to fledge in the wild in the United States in 63 years (all others had fledged in Canada). Landowners adjacent to the nest marsh named the chick “Lucky”, largely due to the fact that there were many attempts by predators to catch the chick.

Despite the fact that the pair of whoopers were at the young-end of the scale for breeding (they hatched 2 chicks before they turned 4 years of age), and were first-time parents, they had shown “model” parent behavior:

  • They successfully tended their eggs for the month-long incubation period, protecting the eggs through several episodes of freezing temperatures and also protecting the eggs from overheating when it was in the 90’s. They hatched both eggs.
  • One chick, at a young age, was taken from the nest by a bald eagle while the parents were away with the other chick. [This predation of one chick is “normal” for whooping cranes and has been documented in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada, where ravens were the predator]. Later, the pair protected the surviving chick from numerous attacks by a pair of bald eagles. About the last time the pair of eagles was seen at the marsh, the whooper parents attacked and “hospitalized” one of the eagles for several weeks before rehabilitators could release the eagle.
  • The pair protected their chick a number of times from dogs. At the approach of dogs, one parent would run with the chick while the other parent would “distract” the dogs by running toward them and diverting their attention.
  • As is normal for cranes, the parents kept the chick warm at night by “brooding” it on the nest platform. When the water dried up around the nest, the parents built new platforms wherever the water was left in the marsh (this provides a protective “mote” of water around them). The fact that the parents built these platforms after hatching was a behavior previously unknown to science.
  • For weeks after the chick hatched, the parents spent a majority of their waking hours catching small prey items to feed the chick. They fed the chick a high-protein diet, concentrating on earthworms, insects, and other organisms small enough for the chick to swallow. On one occasion when Lucky was 26 days old, the parents were observed to feed it 37 times in 5 minutes.

Lucky the Whooping CraneLucky took his first flight at 76 days of age and had become a skilled and strong flier within 2 weeks. When Lucky was older, and before he became independent of its parents, biologists captured and banded him. The attachment of a radio transmitter would allow biologists to track the chick after it left its parent’s territory. Without the transmitter the chick’s fate would never be known. At the time of capture, a small blood sample was taken. From the sample it was determined that Lucky was a male.

The chick became independent of its parents early in 2003, at which time it dispersed to an area 6 miles away where it spent time with other whooping cranes. During a severe drought, Lucky and another bird were roosting in a large marsh. The water had dried up and apparently was not providing the normal degree of protection from predators, and Lucky was killed by a predator in August 2004. Biologists of course were very disappointed, but at least the mortality was due to “natural” causes.

However, the historical significance of the fledging of this chick remained. Not only had Lucky become the first whooping crane to fledge in the wild in the U.S. since 1939, he was the first whooping crane to fledge as a result of a reintroduction of this species. It was a time of celebration for people from the many cooperating agencies that worked on this introduction project. Many people visited the nest marsh and witnessed some part of this story that is documented in the video.

Lucky and his parents became ambassadors for conservation and especially for the whooping crane species.

This video was originally produced by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 2003 and was shared with the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, who used it for educational purposes. All monies derived from the sales were used for conservation of the species.

The 2-part video can be viewed online on the Whooping Crane Conservation Association YouTube Channel.