Sixth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes
Depart on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida
October 5, 2006
Joan Garland, 608-356-9462, x142; 608-381-1262 (cell)
Rachel F. Levin, 612-713-5311
Eighteen young whooping cranes
began their ultralight-led migration from central Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge today – the
sixth group of birds to take part in a landmark project led by the Whooping
Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public
and private groups which is reintroducing this highly imperiled species
in eastern North America, part of its historic range.
At about 7:30 a.m., four ultralight aircraft and 18 juvenile whooping
cranes took to the air for the first leg of the 1,228-mile journey to
the birds’ wintering habitat at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife
Refuge along Florida's Gulf Coast.
Seventeen cranes followed behind three aircraft and landed at the first
stopover site approximately five miles south of the refuge. The remaining
bird landed back at the refuge but was later picked up by one of the
ultralights and followed the aircraft to the stopover site.
“Each fall our year’s work culminates in the excitement of
migration,” said Joe Duff co-founder, CEO and senior pilot for
Operation Migration, the WCEP partner that leads the ultralight migration. “This
season, one unique chick in the Class of ’06 will make the migration
extra special. Young 2-06 was hatched in captivity from an egg laid by
parents from our ultralight-led Class of 2002 when through inexperience,
they abandoned their nest.
“As a result, this year, to our usual role as surrogate parents,
we have the added joy of acting as surrogate grandparents,” Duff
continued. “2-06’s safe arrival in Florida will mark another
project milestone; the first second generation whooping crane to be taught
a migration route.”
Crane 2-06 is the first crane hatched from the reintroduced eastern migratory
whooping crane population. Hatched on May 7, at the U.S. Geological Survey’s
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., 2-06’s parents
are whooping cranes 13 (a male) and 18 (a female) from the ultralight-led
crane Class of 2002.
There are now 61 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North
America as a result of WCEP’s reintroduction efforts, as well as
two chicks that hatched in the wild from reintroduced cranes this summer—the
first whooping cranes hatched in the wild in Wisconsin in more than a
The two wild whooping crane chicks hatched on June 22 at the Necedah
National Wildlife Refuge. They are offspring of reintroduced whooping
crane pair 11-02 (male) and 17-02 (female) from the ultralight-led class
of 2002. The pair nested this spring at the refuge, but their egg or
eggs were lost, likely due to predators. They renested and began incubating
on May 23.
The wild-hatched crane chicks—dubbed W-01 and W-02--stuck close
to their parents on their territory at Necedah NWR for much of the summer
until fledging, or gaining their flight feathers, in early September.
One of the chicks stayed behind when its parents and sibling moved from
their territory, and as of today that chick has not been located. The
other chick, a female, was recently leg-banded with a radio transmitter
so that she can be tracked by WCEP biologists.
In addition to the 18 birds being led south by ultralights, biologists
from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service are rearing five whooping cranes at Necedah NWR. The birds will
be released in the company of older cranes in hopes that the young whooping
cranes learn the migration route, part of WCEP’s “Direct
Autumn Release” program, which supplements the successful ultralight
migrations. One of the cranes sustained a wing injury on October 2. The
bird is recovering well, but it is unknown at this time if he will be
released this fall.
The reintroduction project suffered three mortalities this summer. Male
whooping crane 17-04 was found dead in late May at the Sandhill State
Wildlife Area, Wis. Crane 2-03, a male, was found dead in Monroe County,
Wis., on July 16. The remains of crane 3-02, a female, were found on
July 25 at Necedah NWR.
In 2001, Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane
chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight surrogates, south from
Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR. Each subsequent year, WCEP biologists
and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile
cranes to Chassahowitzka.
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, Md. There, the young cranes are introduced to ultralight
aircraft and raised in isolation from humans. To ensure the impressionable
cranes remain wild, project biologists and pilots adhere to a strict
no-talking rule, broadcast recorded crane calls and wear costumes designed
to mask the human form whenever they are around the cranes.
New classes of cranes are brought to Necedah NWR each June to begin a
summer of conditioning behind the ultralights to prepare them for their
fall migration. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights
at the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes are deemed
ready to follow the aircraft along the migration route.
Most graduated classes of whoopers spend the summer in central Wisconsin,
where they use areas on or near the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge,
as well as various state and private lands. Reintroduced whooping cranes
have also spent time in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and other
In the fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor wild southbound
cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted
journeys and the habitat choices they make along the way.
In the spring, ICF and FWS biologists actively track the cranes as they
make their way north again, and continue to monitor the birds, with the
assistance of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologists, while
they are in their summer locations.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today,
there are only about 500 birds in existence, 350 of them in the wild.
Aside from the 61 Wisconsin-Florida birds, the only other migrating population
of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest
Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
on the Texas Gulf Coast.
A non-migrating flock of approximately 55 birds lives year-round in the
central Florida Kissimmee region. The remaining 150 whooping cranes are
in captivity in zoos and breeding facilities around North America.
Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live
and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and
aquatic plants. They are distinctive animals, standing five feet tall,
with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.
WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please
give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on
foot within 600 feet; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach
in a vehicle within 600 feet or, if on a public road, within 300 feet.
Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the
birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an
attempt to view whooping cranes.
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members are the International
Crane Foundation, Operation Migration Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural
Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey’s
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center,
the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation
of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.
Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation
groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources,
funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project’s estimated
$1.8 million annual budget comes from private sources in the form of
grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.
For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help,
visit the WCEP website at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org.