Pairs of whooping cranes are dying. It has happened twice this season. Four birds gone from our small population of ~100 is approximately 4% of the population! Wiped out.
In both cases one bird had been long deceased and the second was recently deceased. I've added details about both pairs below the break. Before you click on it, know that we have no idea why they died excepting 31-08's death is probably predation.
The Nice Couple from Quincy Bluff
24-05 (Ultralight Male) and 42-07 (DAR Female) spent summers on their breeding territory in Adams County. They flew down to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama to spend their winter months together. I kept track of them this winter on a few legs of their migration because they were traveling with my DAR bird, 21-10.
It is hard not to get attached to these birds. Since there are so few of them, we remember stories about each one. For example, 42-07 was in the DAR cohort that Eva released as an intern. Eva has all these memories of 42-07 as a chick and has tracked 42-07's whole life story: from her first flight to her first 'boyfriend' to her first nest. I may be projecting my feelings onto Eva, but I know that if 19-10 (Pepper Jack) was to find a 'girlfriend,' I'd celebrate. He will always hold a special place in my heart because he was so rebellious as a juvenile. It will be like that for each member of the 2010 cohort.
Back to the story. After extensive necropsy analysis we have absolutely no idea why they died. 24-05's body was found too late for good analysis, but we know he wasn't shot (this is somewhat of a relief after last winter). 42-07's body was found in good condition, though emaciated (very thin). No evidence for predation, gunshot, or even disease. She was also molting, which means that she was not able to fly.
To get me through the day, here is my personal explanation which in no way reflects ICF's view on the topic: 24-05 died somehow. Perhaps disease, perhaps he was poisoned, we don't know how it happened. Anyway, he died on their home territory. Cranes have a 'mourning' behavior. They will stand around the deceased with their heads lowered. After some time has passed, they will fly away. If the cranes do not see the body, then they will continue looking for the lost crane, calling for it, flying around, etc. This leads me to believe they form relationships with each other. Poor 42-07 is literally trapped in her home territory with the body of her dead husband still lying around in a corner. I wouldn't be surprised if she just stopped eating due to stress. Maybe she died of a broken heart.... End anthropomorphism.
Juneau County Forest Pair
This is hard. Too soon after we lost the Quincy Bluff pair we discovered the bodies of 27-05 (Very first DAR bird) and 31-08 (DAR male). They were a newly formed couple.
(Backstory: 27-05 used to share this territory with Superdad, 12-05, which I talked about in one of my very first blog entries. 12-05 was shot in Alabama this winter and 27-05 fled to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge where I was stationed. She returned to her old territory this spring and 31-08 returned with her. At first it didn't seem as though they were together; they just seemed to be in the same cornfield. THEN the magic happened. They retreated behind the Cloak of Invisibility that is Juneau County Forest. They had a nest but nothing came of it this year. We all had high hopes for next year.)
Since Dan, Field Ecology Intern, and I just went out and retrieved their bodies last week it is too soon for the Necropsy lab results. In this case, 27-05's body had been there for at least a week or more. 31-08's body was very fresh. From the evidence on the scene I would say he was killed by a predator.