Newsroom Midwest Region

Nov. 23, 2010

Liz Condie 608-542-0829
Tom MacKenzie, USFWS Southeast, 404-679-7291
Ashley Spratt, 612-247-2976

Tenth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida Zooms into Kentucky

An ultralight leading whooping cranes on their migration south

Eleven young whooping cranes have completed more than one-third of their migration from Wisconsin to Florida.

They flew into Kentucky from Illinois today, landing in Union County, Ky.   Only six to seven months old, the cranes have now traveled 463 miles and have another 795 miles to go.

This is the 10th group of birds to take part in a landmark project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing this highly imperiled species in eastern North America.  There are now about 96 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America thanks to their efforts.

“We are proud to be part of this effort to bring this magnificent bird species back from the brink of extinction,” said Cindy Dohner, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  “This is another example of people working together to help overcome monumental challenges that many species face in surviving in a landscape greatly altered by mankind.”

Three ultralight aircraft and the juvenile cranes are traveling through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach the birds’ wintering habitats at Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Florida's Gulf Coast. 

“Safeguarding an endangered species does not come with guarantees.” said Joe Duff, senior ultralight pilot and CEO of Operation Migration. “This is more than simply an experiment in wildlife reintroduction; it is a struggle against all odds.”

Want to see them?

Live streaming video of the flight is available, subject to wireless signal strength and technical capacity.  Visit:  

You can see a take-off on Nov. 6 on YouTube by visiting here:

Operation Migration frequently offers the chance to see a fly-over.  See locations near you at: 

Want to help?

Report whooping crane sightings at the whooping crane observation webpage at:

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


In 2001, Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight aircraft surrogates, south from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.  Each subsequent year, 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 National Wildlife Refuge 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 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 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 National Wildlife Refuge, 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, about 400 of them in the wild.  Aside from the 96 cranes released by the partnership, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.  A non-migrating flock of about 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.
More than 60 percent of the project’s budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.

Why not let the cranes teach each other?  We do that too.

In addition to the 11 birds being led south by ultralights, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the Service reared 11 other whooping cranes at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds will learn the migration route.  They were released on Oct. 25.  One was killed on Oct. 30 by a predator at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.  This is the sixth year the partnership has used this Direct Autumn Release method.

The ultralight-led and Direct Autumn Release chicks are this year joining two wild-hatched chicks in the 2010 cohort.  

Seven chicks initially hatched this year in the wild, the largest number to hatch in 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 two wild whooping crane 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.  The nest abandonments earlier this spring are similar to what has been observed in previous years.  The partnership 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.

Encountering a whooping crane in the wild?

· Please give them the respect and distance they need.
· Do not trespass on private property to view or photograph whooping cranes.
· Please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you.  
· Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards.
· Do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards and remain in your vehicle. 

Who we are:
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members:
· International Crane Foundation
· Operation Migration, Inc.
· Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
· U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
· U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
· National Wildlife Health Center
· National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
· Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
· 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.



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