Midwest Region


October 29, 2010      

Contact:  Joan Garland, 608-381-1262
For more information on the project and its partners, visit the WCEP website at:

Young Whooping Cranes Will Learn Migration Route from their Elders

Eleven young whooping cranes were released October 25 on central Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.  The cranes are part of the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) project conducted 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 approximately 107 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America thanks to WCEP’s efforts.

Whooping crane chicks for DAR are reared at Necedah NWR by biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The juvenile birds are released in the company of older cranes after fledging, or developing their flight feathers.  The young cranes learn the migration route from these older birds.  This is the sixth year WCEP has used the DAR method.  

“We are pleased with the successful release of the DAR birds,” said Dr. Barry Hartup, Director of Veterinary Services at the International Crane Foundation.  “The DAR program provides WCEP with an additional opportunity to increase and strengthen the eastern migratory whooping crane population."

Biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are tracking the released cranes using radio telemetry, picking up radio signals emitted from leg transmitters on the birds.  

In addition to the 11 DAR birds, 11 whooping cranes are being led south by project partner Operation Migration’s ultralight aircraft.  The ultralight-led birds are currently in Winnebago County, Illinois.  The ultralight-led and DAR chicks this year are joining two wild-hatched chicks in the 2010 cohort.  

Seven chicks initially hatched this year in the wild, the largest number to hatch in WCEP project history.  Wild-hatched chicks face a precarious existence in the first weeks of their lives, and natural loss of chicks due to predation is common.  The survival rate for WCEP with these two chicks is within the range of survival rates for wild sandhill crane chicks in south-central Wisconsin currently being studied by the International Crane Foundation.  

In 2001, 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.  

Whooping cranes that take part in the ultralight and DAR 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 570 birds in existence, approximately 400 of them in the wild. Aside from the 107 released 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 25 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.

WCEP 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:

Whooping Cranes


The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

Connect with our Facebook page at, follow our tweets at, watch our YouTube Channel at and download photos from our Flickr page at

Last updated: June 15, 2016