A pair of whooping cranes has hatched two chicks in central Wisconsin, marking the first young of the species to be hatched in the wild in the eastern United States in more than 100 years.
The new arrivals will join about two dozen young cranes that will be added this year to a second migratory flock of the endangered birds that is being established in North America.
Operation Migration, the nonprofit group trying to build the flock, released photos showing two brown chicks being tended by their parents in the thick grass of the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin.
Joe Duff, who heads Operation Migration, said the successful nesting was the second attempt by the adult pair this season. The adults had abandoned their first nest.
"Seems the first try was just practice for this grand event," he wrote on the group's Web site, while also cautioning that the parents still face the challenge of keeping the young alive until able to fly.
Duff, reached by telephone Monday evening, said the chicks could be especially vulnerable to predators because the adults have never before had young to protect and must learn parenting skills. Crane chicks are also highly competitive, and when two hatch in the same nest, sometimes only one survives.
"If they both survive, it's going to be terrific," Duff said.
He said he expects the cranes hatched in the wild to migrate with their parents.
As part of the project, now in its fifth year, cranes hatched in captivity at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland have been raised at the Necedah refuge and led south by ultralight aircraft in the fall to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, Florida. They migrate back north on their own in the spring.
The flock now numbers about 60 birds, with 22 newly hatched young ones being raised for release this fall.
Duff said this year's group of young cranes from Maryland was shipped to Necedah on Monday, and those eight cranes include another first — a bird conceived in the wild but hatched in captivity.
Researchers in Wisconsin had collected two eggs after determining the parent weren't diligently tending their nest. The eggs were incubated and flown to Maryland, where the cranes hatched out but only one survived, Duff said.
The only other migrating flock of whooping cranes numbers about 200 birds. They fly from Canada to winter on the Texas Gulf Coast. The whooping crane, the tallest bird in North America, was near extinction in 1941, with only about 20 left.