National Wildlife Refuge System

The Cranes are Off!

People are invited to watch the cranes fly over en route to St. Marks Refuge, FL. This is the crane Class of 2011. Look for 2013 viewing locations here.
Credit: Wayne Lunch
A juvenile crane is fed by a handler costumed to resemble an adult crane.
Credit: USFWS

Eight young whooping cranes began their ultra-light led migration on October 2 in Wisconsin, en route to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

This is the 13th group of birds to take part in a project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that is reintroducing this highly imperiled species in eastern North America, part of its historic range.

WCEP partner Operation Migration will use two ultralight aircraft to lead the juvenile cranes through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

“Despite the fact that we have done this before, each year we learn something new about these wonderful birds,” said Joe Duff, CEO of Operation Migration and leader of the ultralight team. “This year's flock seems more attentive, and we hope to make better progress. Our target is to arrive in Florida before Christmas.”

In addition to the eight cranes being led south by ultralights, biologists from WCEP partner, International Crane Foundation, are currently rearing nine whooping crane chicks at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, WI. The birds will be released later this fall in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds will learn the migration route south. This is the ninth
year WCEP has used this Direct Autumn Release (DAR) method.

Training with Care

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, WI. 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.

During a September 5 training flight with the Class of 2013, whooping cranes fly over White River Marsh in Wisconsin.
Credit: Sara Duff Sonntag/Operation Migration
The seventeen aircraft-led and DAR chicks are joining one wild-hatched chick in the 2013 cohort. The wild-raised chick will follow its parents on migration. In addition to the 18 juvenile cranes, 101 whooping cranes are currently in the eastern migratory population.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 600 birds in existence, approximately 445 of them in the wild. Aside from the WCEP birds, the only other migratory 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-migratory flock of approximately 20 birds lives year-round in the central Florida
Kissimmee region, and an additional 17 non-migratory cranes live in southern Louisiana.

The public is invited to follow the aircraft-guided Whooping cranes on Operation Migration’s live CraneCam, which broadcasts daily during flights and while the cranes are at each stopover location along the route to Florida.

Streaming video

Daily Web postings

Keep Your Distance

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 any closer than 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.




Last updated: October 21, 2013