November 13, 2003
The first wild whooping cranes to fly over eastern North America in more than a century began their unassisted fall migration late last week -- notching another milestone in the recovery of this most endangered of all crane species.
The birds are part of an effort by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to establish a wild migrating flock of whooping cranes in eastern North America.
Central Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, as well as state lands managed by the Wisconsin DNR, county and private wetlands in Wisconsin, served as "summer homes" for many of these 20 whooping cranes. A few individuals visited or spent the summer in eastern Minnesota and northern Illinois, and three of the females wandered as far as South Dakota before being returned to the reintroduction area.
In the fall of 2001 and 2002, after being conditioned by pilots and biologists to follow ultralight aircraft, these cranes were led south by Operation Migration pilots to their "winter home" at Chassahowitzka NWR on Florida's Gulf coast. Both national wildlife refuges are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
All 20 have flown the Florida-Wisconsin flyway unassisted at least once. The birds from the "Class of 2001" are making the southbound trip on their own for the second time.
The wild cranes migrate in small groups or by themselves and are expected to follow essentially the same migration route as in previous years, which can take them over parts of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia before reaching their winter home at Chassahowitzka. Their southward migration can take anywhere from a week to more than a month. Last year the first wild crane to migrate south unassisted, "Lucky Number 7" of the Class of 2001, made the journey in just over a week.
International Crane Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists are tracking the wild cranes as they migrate. Updates on their progress are available on the Web at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org.
A third ultralight-led flock of 16 juvenile whooping cranes departed Wisconsin on Oct. 16. This migration is currently at a stopover site in Kentucky. Several of the reintroduced wild whoopers are not far behind in Indiana.
It is not unusual for the previous years' birds to catch up with their ultralight-led cohorts. Last year, birds from the "Class of 2001" appeared at one of the ultralight stopover sites and accompanied the juveniles and their aircraft guides for a short time before continuing on their own. The ultralight-led migration is expected to take approximately 50 days.
The reintroduction goal is to establish a migrating flock of 125 birds--including 25 breeding pairs--in eastern North America by 2020.
The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is a consortium of non-profit organizations and government agencies. Founding members are the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.
Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support the partnership by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the estimated $1.8 million budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, donations and corporate sponsors.
For more information on the project and its partners, visit the WCEP website at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org
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