Newsroom Midwest Region

October 8, 2009

Ashley Spratt, 612-247-2976

Ultralight-led whooping crane migration set to begin October 10

A tentative departure date of Oct. 10, 2009 has been set for the 2009 ultralight-led migration of twenty-one juvenile whooping cranes from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Wisconsin to their wintering destinations in southern Florida.

The public and media are invited to observe the Class of 2009 departure at the Ducks Unlimited (DU) Wetland located off Headquarters Road between Hwy. 21 and the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge Office. Public and media are encouraged to arrive no later than 6:45 a.m on Saturday, Oct. 10. The departure is weather-dependent. For the most up-to-date departure status please call the Whooping Crane Migration Hotline at (904) 731-3293.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, is conducting this project, now in its ninth year, in an effort to reintroduce this endangered species in eastern North America. There are now 77 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America -- including the first whooping crane chick to hatch in the wild in Wisconsin in more than a century.
Each fall, pilots from Operation Migration (OM), a WCEP founding partner, leads a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultralight aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida. The cranes will make the return flight to the Upper Midwest in the spring.

“Although this will be our ninth ultralight-led migration with Whooping cranes, each year inevitably presents new challenges,” said Joe Duff, Operation Migration, Inc., CEO and senior pilot. “With 21 birds this year, we have one of the largest cohorts ever, and there are 1,285 miles ahead of us with no guarantees. We have done everything we can to prepare them. Now we need favorable winds and a little luck. It took the combined efforts of many people to bring this project to this stage.”
The ultralight-led flock from Necedah NWR will pass through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach the final destinations at St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges in Florida.

 “For the first time, the new technology of our mobile CraneCam will allow us to take viewers along on the great adventure of a wild migration,” said Duff. “That experience will be enhanced with the introduction of OM’s TrikeCam that will allow viewers to ‘fly with us’ too.”

The duration of the migration is completely dependent on weather. It is unknown how long it will take the team to reach their final destination. To help speed the migration and improve safety for the birds and the pilots, a new route was developed last year that takes the team around the Appalachian Mountains rather than over them.
In addition to the 21 ultralight-led birds, biologists from the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and the Service reared nine whooping cranes at Necedah NWR.  The birds were released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds will learn the migration route.  This is the fifth 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.

Most of the reintroduced whooping cranes spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on the Necedah NWR, as well as various state and private lands.  Reintroduced whooping cranes have also spent time in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and other upper Midwest states.

In the spring and fall, project staff from ICF and the Service track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted migrations and the habitat choices they make along the way.  The birds are monitored during the winter in Florida by WCEP project staff. ICF and Service biologists continue to monitor the birds while they are in their summer locations.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team has established a target number for this reintroduction. Once there are at least 125 individuals, including 25 breeding pairs, migrating in this eastern corridor the population could be considered self sustaining. With 77 birds now in the wild and another 30 soon to be released this project is well past the half way mark.

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 77 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 Coast.  
A non-migrating flock of approximately 30 birds lives year-round in central Florida.  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 seeds. 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 $1.6 million annual budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsorship.

A Wisconsin Whooping Crane Management Plan that describes project goals and management and monitoring strategies shared and implemented by the partners is online at: more information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the WCEP website at

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