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Historic Ultralight Migration Leads Majestic Whooping Cranes Over the Skies of Tennessee; Birds Reach Halfway Point of Migration


November 20, 2003

Heather Ray, Operation Migration, Inc. - (905) 718-1292 (cell—on-site with migration)
Rachel F. Levin, WCEP/USFWS, 612-713-5311 or 612-309-5760 (cell)
Joan Garland, International Crane Foundation, 608-356-9462 x142 or 608-381-1262 (cell)
Tom MacKenzie, USFWS Southeast Region 404-679-7291 or 678-296-6400 (cell)

Sixteen endangered whooping crane chicks reached Tennessee today on their 1,228-mile ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's central Gulf Coast.

These majestic birds, the largest in North America, left Necedah on October 8, following three ultralight aircraft piloted by Operation Migration pilots.

To date, the whooping crane chicks have traveled 652.7 miles during their migration, and they are in Cumberland County.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, is conducting this project in an effort to reintroduce this highly imperiled species in eastern North America.

“Currently, there are only 260 whooping cranes in the wild, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proud to be a part of this continuing recovery effort for the endangered whooping crane,” said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This ultralight migration project is in its third successful year with Federal and State experts teaming with Non-Profit groups with a single-minded purpose of resurrecting the cranes’ historic migrating route.”

The migration follows the natural migration of the whooping crane’s cousin, the sandhill crane that passes through Tennessee each fall. To follow the progress of the 2003 crane migration, go to

“The Hiawassee Wildlife Refuge, managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), plays host to many species of migratory birds at various times of the year. The refuge has long been the nesting and feeding place for migrating geese and ducks,” said Clarence Coffey, TWRA Regional Manager. “During the last decade, the number of sandhill cranes has increased to a level where biologists believe up to 60,000 sandhill cranes may use the area each year during their winter migration. “We are excited the Hiawassee Refuge is now playing a major role in the ultralight-led migration and for the newly reintroduced whooping cranes as they move into the wild.”

The whooping crane chicks involved in the WCEP reintroduction project were hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, where they were introduced to ultralights and raised in isolation from humans. The Operation Migration pilots, along with biologists from Patuxent and the International Crane Foundation, spent the summer conditioning the cranes to fly gradually longer flights behind the ultralights--the cranes’ “surrogate parents.”

These sixteen cranes represent the third generation of birds to make this historic, assisted migration from Wisconsin to Florida. In 2001, seven of eight whooping cranes that began the first fall migration made it to Florida safely; five of these seven birds survived the winter and made an unassisted, successful spring migration back to Wisconsin.

In 2002, the WCEP migration team conditioned a second group and guided 17 juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. One was lost during the migration when it collided with an ultralight. Sixteen returned to Wisconsin this past spring.

The WCEP monitoring team is presently tracking the location of all of the cranes from the "Class of 2001" and “Class of 2002”. To date, all but one of the cranes from these previous migrations are independently migrating south from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Three of the cranes have already successfully migrated to Florida this year. To follow the progress of the wild cranes, please visit

The reintroduction is part of an ongoing recovery effort for the highly imperiled whooping crane, which was on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Except for the Wisconsin-Florida birds, the continent's only other migratory population of whooping cranes winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.

A non-migrating flock of about 100 cranes remain year-round in central Florida, as part of an ongoing reintroduction study led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 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 the species from endangered to threatened status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and eventual recovery.

In 1998, an international coalition of state and federal governments and private organizations formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to spearhead the migratory reintroduction project for the whooping crane, a federally listed endangered species. More than 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, and all of the team that interacts with the cranes wear costumes to mask their human form and use adult crane puppet heads to mimic adult bird behaviors. The goal of WCEP is to establish a migrating flock of at least 125 birds including 25 adult breeding pairs, restoring the species to eastern North America.

Founding members of WCEP include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Crane Foundation, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, Operation Migration, Inc., National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel.

For daily updates and press kits, visit the WCEP website at Daily updates are recorded at (904) 232-2580 ext. 102.

Note: B-roll is available by calling (905) 718-1292.


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