Seventeen Endangered Whooping Cranes Take to the Sky on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida
Joan Garland, 608-356-9462, x142,
or 608-381-1262 (cell)
Rachel F. Levin, 612-713-531,
or 612-309-5760 (cell)
Seventeen young whooping cranes this morning began their
ultralight-led migration from central Wisconsin’s Necedah National
Wildlife Refuge (NWR). This is the seventh 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 that is reintroducing
this highly imperiled species in eastern North America, part of its historic
range. There are now 52 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North
America thanks to WCEP’s efforts.
Four ultralight aircraft and the juvenile cranes took to the air for
the first leg of the 1,250-mile journey to the birds’ wintering
habitat at Chassahowitzka
National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's Gulf
“This will be our seventh migration along this route and although
we have done it before, each season brings new challenges and the weather
is always unpredictable,” said Joe Duff, senior ultralight pilot
and CEO of Operation Migration, the WCEP partner that leads the ultralight
migration. “It has consistently taken us 22 to 23 flying days
to cover the 1,250 miles from here to Florida. However, each year, it
seems to take a longer period to get those 23 good weather mornings and
last season we were on the road for 76 days. The team works very hard
to prepare these birds for their first migration and they deserve a break.
We are asking everyone to hope and pray for good weather this year and
speed the birds to their new winter home.”
In addition to the 17 birds being led south by ultralights, biologists
from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service reared 10 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.
Whooping cranes that take part in the ultralight and Direct Autumn Release
reintroductions are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent
Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., and at the International Crane
Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. Chicks are raised under a strict isolation
protocol and to ensure the birds remain wild, handlers adhere to a no-talking
rule and wear costumes designed to mask the human form.
Each year since 2001, ultralight pilots of project partner Operation
Migration have conditioned and led juvenile whooping cranes to follow
their aircraft on their first migration south. Each year’s new
class of young cranes is shipped from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
to Necedah NWR in June to begin their summer of “flight training” behind
Operation Migration’s ultralights in preparation for their migration
south. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights over
the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes have sufficient
stamina to follow the ultralights along the migration route.
Graduated classes of whooping cranes spend the summer in central Wisconsin,
where they use areas on or near Necedah NWR, as well as various state
and private lands.
In the spring and fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation
and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the released
cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted
journeys and the habitat choices they make both along the way and on
their summering ground.
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 200 yards; try to remain in your vehicle; and do not approach
in a vehicle within 100 yards. 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 cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today,
there are only about 350 of them in the wild. Aside from the birds reintroduced
by WCEP, 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 50 birds lives year-round
in the central Florida Kissimmee region.
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.
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 budget
comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and
For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help,
visit the WCEP website at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org