Despite the stabilization of the Wattled Crane population over the past decade, their habit of congregating in floater (or bachelor) flocks to roost, makes them vulnerable to single catastrophic events (such as a major hail storm, or the rapid spread of a virus), which could rapidly reduce the already compromised population. Should such an event occur, it may leave the remaining population unviable and beyond recovery through natural means.
Our task is to gain scientific knowledge, as insurance against such a catastrophic event. We aim to understand the requirements of breeding and raising captive birds and develop the necessary protocols and methodologies for successfully integrating captive raised birds into the wild flock. This we need to do to ensure that captive reared birds are able to pair with wild birds, breed, and become established members of a new generation.
The Wattled Crane Conservation Research Programme (WCCRP).
The WCCRP is a project that has formed out of the Wattled Crane Recovery Program (WCRP). It is a collaboration between EWT (the Endangered Wildlife Trust) and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Aimed at better understanding the population dynamics, habits, and causes of the decline of the wild wattled crane population.
KZN Crane Foundation built a specialised crane rearing facility at the Usher Conservation Centre in Nottingham Road. The facility includes individual chick pens, a food preparation area, accommodation for “Chick Mums” who need to be at hand twenty four hours a day when the chicks are first hatched. As part of the development there is a small walking and swimming area for newly hatched chicks and a large dome which is where isolated reared chicks will first to roost in water.
In 2014, we successfully hatched and raised three Wattled Crane chicks at the centre and gathered a great deal of data pertaining to their habits, behaviours, diet, and growth-rates.
The eggs were harvested by EWT and Ezemvelo from nests of wild birds. Wattled Cranes often lay two eggs, but raise only the first chick to hatch, abandoning the second egg. It was these abandoned second eggs that were used in this program. The three chicks we raised all survived and were successfully brought to maturity.
Like the young of many birds, crane chicks imprint readily on their initial care givers, it is therefore important to avoid allowing the chicks to associate humans with this care. At all times, our Chick Mums therefore dress up in a smock designed to mimic the colours of adult cranes and use specially crafted hand puppets to feed the chicks and teach them to forage. The chicks need plenty of exercise and our volunteers and chick mums walk them around the reserve, by the time they are ready to fledge, the birds need to walk up to eight kilometres a day.
Following on from this work, the key focus of the next phase of our research is understanding the transition of sub adult birds, from the time that they fledge, until they are fully integrated into the wild flock. This involves the tracking of wild reared birds (i.e. reared by their parents), from before they are fully fledged, until they are introduced to the floater flock by their parents. The second phase of this project will aim to track captive reared birds through the same life phases.
The WCRP together with the other programs run by The KZN Crane Foundation, EWT and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, has resulted in a steady recovery of all three of our crane species since the year 2000.