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Whooping Crane

Lift Off!
Ultralight-led Whooping Cranes Start Historic Migration


October 17, 2001

Chuck Underwood, 904/910-6254

A small flock of young whooping cranes led by three ultralight aircraft lifted off from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin near dawn today in an effort to restore migrating whooping cranes to eastern North America. The cranes will be taught a new 1,250-mile migration route to wintering grounds at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. As in last year's study using sandhill cranes, the young whoopers are expected to return to Wisconsin on their own next spring.

"This is an exciting day for North American conservation," said Marshall Jones, Acting Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Today, we began the first ultralight-led migration in history with only whooping cranes, which is itself a milestone. The outcome of any experiment is uncertain, but we start this migration with an expectation of success."

The reintroduction is part of an ongoing recovery effort for the highly imperiled species, which was on the verge of extinction in the 1940s and even today numbers only about 260 birds in the wild. The continent's only migratory population of whooping cranes winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast and is vulnerable to a catastrophic event such as a major hurricane, disease or oil spill. This reintroduction would not only restore the whooper to part of its historic range but also provide another geographically distinct migratory population that could lead to downlisting and eventual recovery.

In 1998, a coalition of state and federal governments and the private sector formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to coordinate and fund last year's sandhill crane study and this year's whooping crane study. Over 35 private landowners have volunteered their property as stopover sites for the cranes and migration team. A temporary pen keeps the cranes safe from predators between each morning's flight. The migration is expected to take from five to seven weeks.

"This project never would have gotten off the ground, literally, without the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, the private landowners, corporations who have donated resources and the support of the public in the twenty-state project area." said Jones. "It is a real tribute to the difference that early collaboration and cooperation makes."

"We started training ten birds in April." said Joe Duff, lead pilot, trainer and co-founder of Operation Migration Inc. "Those remaining in the study were selected for their overall suitability in terms of strength in flying and successfully following the aircraft. We are prepared for the possibility that not every bird will complete the full migration."

The whooping crane, named for its loud and penetrating call, is one of America's best known and rarest endangered species. This species lives and breeds in extensive wetlands, where it feeds upon crabs, clams, frogs, and other aquatic organisms. Whooping cranes stand 5 feet tall and are pure white in color with black wing tips and a red crown.

Never very numerous, whooping cranes were thought to number historically between 700 and 1,400 in North America, before unregulated hunting and habitat destruction caused the population to plummet to a low of 16 birds in 1941. There are currently 174 birds in the only natural remaining wild flock, which breeds in Canada and winters on the Texas gulf coast, at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. A second non-migratory flock of approximately 75 lives year round in central Florida, as part of a separate and ongoing reintroduction effort.

In recent decades, the only remaining natural whooping crane population has slowly increased as a result of conservation efforts. However, the species' survival is still in question, due to the threat of accidental collisions with wires and fences, extreme weather events, possible oil and chemical spills, and numerous other threats. The species is particularly vulnerable on its wintering grounds along the Texas Gulf Coast due to the large percentage of the population occurring within a small area.

Founding members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership are the International Crane Foundation, International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, Operation Migration Inc., National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS/Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Madison Wildlife Health Center, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Many other flyway States, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and supported WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel.

For daily updates, press kits and protocol for how to access the migration team on the road, go to the Media Button at

Departure Contacts: Chuck Underwood, USFWS 904-910-6254
Bob Manwell, WI DNR, 612-868-9851
Jennifer Rabuck, USFWS, 608-565-4412
Joan Guilfoyle, USFWS, 612-810-6797
On the road cell phone: 612-868-9851
Recorded daily updates: 612-713-5311
or 608-565-4412
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 94-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System that encompasses more than 535 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices, and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center on the Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project

Whooping Crane Photos

US Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species page

The photos below were taken by Jennifer L. Rabuck, Park Ranger, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (click on the smaller one to bring up larger dpi photo).
Whooping Cranes following behind an Ultralight

Whooping Cranes following behind an Ultralight

Whooping Cranes following behind an Ultralight

Whooping Cranes following behind an Ultralight

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Phone: 404/679-7289 Fax: 404/679-7286

2001 News Releases

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