Newsroom Midwest Region

June 3, 2010

Joan Garland, 608-381-1262
Dan Peterson, 608-565-4412

For more information on the project and its partners, visit the WCEP website at:

Wild Whooping Crane Chicks Hatch at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) is celebrating another success in its efforts to reintroduce a wild migratory whooping crane population in eastern North America. Two whooping crane chicks hatched Monday at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Wisconsin.  This is only the third time in over a century that naturally produced whooping cranes have hatched in the wild in the Midwest.   

The chicks, #W1-10 and #W2-10 (W = wild hatched), are the offspring of whooping crane pair #9-03 and #3-04 from the ultralight-led crane Classes of 2003 and 2004.  

“We are cautiously optimistic that it will be a good year,” said Necedah NWR manager Doug Staller. “Out of the seven pairs of whooping cranes that nested this season, we are excited to see two Direct Autumn Release birds nesting this year.”

The chicks are the result of renesting.  Earlier this spring, nine breeding pairs of whooping cranes built nests and laid eggs, but all nine pairs abandoned those first nests.  Later this spring, four pairs renested, including #9-03 and #3-04, and three additional pairs initiated nests.  Five pairs currently remain on their nests.

The nest abandonments earlier this spring are similar to what has been observed in previous years.  WCEP is investigating the cause of the abandonments through analysis of data collected throughout the nesting period on crane behavior and black fly abundance and distribution.

Whooping cranes are long-lived birds that may start nesting attempts at three to five years of age, and can continue hatching eggs and rearing chicks past the age of 30.  In captivity, the oldest breeding whooping crane is currently 41 years old.  The oldest whooping crane known to be producing young in the wild is 32 years old.

In 2001, WCEP project partner Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight aircraft surrogates, south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR in Florida.  Each subsequent year, WCEP biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Florida. Having been shown the way once, the young birds initiate their return migration in the spring, and in subsequent years, continue to migrate on their own.  In 2008, St. Marks NWR along Florida’s Gulf Coast was added as an additional wintering site for the juvenile cranes.  

In addition to the ultralight-led birds, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rear whooping crane chicks at Necedah NWR and release them in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds learn the migration route.  This is the sixth year WCEP has used this Direct Autumn Release method.  

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.

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 and wintering grounds.

Most of the whooping cranes released in previous years spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near Necedah NWR, as well as other public and private lands.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 550 birds in existence, approximately 400 of them in the wild. Aside from the 102 WCEP birds, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada and winters at Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast.  A non-migrating flock of approximately 30 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.

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; remain in your vehicle; 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 or photograph 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 budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.
To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP whooping crane observation webpage at:


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