National Wildlife Refuge System

Whooping Cranes Arrive in Florida

green jay
Five whooping cranes arrived in Florida after migrating from Wisconsin behind an ultralight aircraft.
Credit: Lou Kellenberger

Five endangered whooping cranes arrived at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, FL. They are the twelfth group of cranes guided by ultralight aircraft from central Wisconsin to the Gulf coast of Florida.

Six cranes left Wisconsin on September 28 and arrived at St. Marks on November 23, a shorter migration than usual due largely to good weather.  One crane broke a leg en route and died during surgery.

“This is the earliest the birds have arrived at St. Marks,” said Terry Peacock, St. Marks Refuge manager.  “I was at the pen site to watch the birds arrive. I just have to say that it never gets old watching the birds come to the refuge. It was as touching this time as it was the first time.”

Peacock says the cranes are in a netted pen while waiting for health checks by veterinarians from Disney Animal Kingdom.  Then they will be moved to a larger pen where they may fly freely. Winter caretakers are provided by Disney and Operation Migration. The caretakers continue to assist with training that would ordinarily be provided by crane parents. Peacock says the young cranes must learn to roost in a safe place and to find and eat their winter diet of crabs and fish.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private organizations, is conducting the reintroduction project in an effort to restore this endangered species to part of its historic range in eastern North America.

Whooping cranes were nearly extinct in the 1940s. Today, there are about 600 whooping cranes in existence, about 445 of them in the wild.  In addition to the Florida cranes, the only other migratory population nests in northern Alberta, Canada, and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf coast. There is also a non-migratory flock of about 20 whooping cranes in the central Florida Kissimmee region and another 14 non-migratory cranes in southern Louisiana.

People are urged not to approach a whooping crane within 200 yards on foot or 100 yards in a vehicle.  Do not trespass on private property to get that “perfect photograph.” To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP whooping crane observation Web page.

More on the cranes’ journey at Operation Migration.

Last updated: November 30, 2012