HORICON - It's a fact of life that babies grow up to be adults and leave their parents an empty nest. For the International Crane Foundation, that nest is a pen at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge with eight Whooping Crane chicks that will take flight next week.
This is the first time the Horicon Marsh is hosting the ICF's program in its 11-year history. The ICF's base is in Baraboo and the chicks are typically released at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.
"Over the past 10 years they've been released at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, that has been a wonderful place to release the birds," said Joan Garland, outreach coordinator for the ICF. "The cranes have paired up and they're forming pair bonds; they're building nests; they're laying eggs."
Approximately 96 Whooping Cranes nest at Necedah, however the ICF found recently that many of the pairs are abandoning their nests before the chicks hatch.
"One of the theories that we believe is the cause of this is that there is a large hatching of avian feeding black flies that occur the exact same time that the cranes are on their nests, so the cranes are just covered in these black flies," Garland said.
It takes a full month for Whooping Crane eggs to incubate properly.
"Last year the whooping crane recovering team made the recommendation that until we can figure out exactly what's going on with the nesting abandonment, they didn't want any more releases to occur at Necedah," Garland said.
Now chicks, varying from ages 14- to 18-weeks old, are enjoying some time at the Horicon Marsh. The chicks were hatched in captivity, some from breeding pairs at ICF and some from the abandoned nests.
"We are able in cases like that to go in and retrieve those eggs," Garland said. "Some of the birds that are here have come from the abandoned eggs at Necedah."
Throughout their time with the ICF, the chicks do not have contact with humans. Or, at least not humans that look like what looks like a white and brown tapered sheet and an arm shaped like a crane's head.
"Any time we're around the chicks we are always in costume," Garland said. "When we're in that costume we have a digital recorder that plays a brood call, that's a soft purring call, to the chicks. So they don't know they're around a person."
The ICF also give the chicks exposure to other adult Whooping Cranes.
"We want them to imprint properly on their own species," Garland said.
The chicks arrived Sept. 20 after spending some time at Necedah, were banded on Friday and will be released soon.
"Hopefully Tuesday or Wednesday is when they will release them," Garland said. "They're going to take the Whooping Cranes away from the current pen site to somewhere along the refuge. They'll release them with these older adults and hopefully these young cranes will follow the older birds on the migration route south.
The Whooping Cranes in this area typically make a stop in Indiana and then spend the winter in Tennessee, Georgia or Florida.