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Fifth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes Departs on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida


October 14, 2005

Chuck Underwood, USFWS Southeast, 904-232-2580, x109
Rachel F. Levin,
USFWS Midwest, 612-713-5311

Twenty whooping cranes began their ultralight-led flight from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin today – the fifth generation of birds taking part in a landmark reintroduction effort sponsored by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, is organizing the effort to reintroduce this highly imperilled species in eastern North America, which was a part of its historic range. There are now 42 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.

At about 8 a.m., after being delayed for a short time by ground fog, four ultralight aircraft and 20 juvenile whooping cranes took to the air for the first leg of the 1,228-mile journey to the birds’ wintering habitat at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's Gulf Coast.

Fourteen of the birds followed the aircraft and landed at the first stopover site after about 30 minutes. Four birds returned to the refuge and will be crated and transported by van to the stopover site. As of 9:15 a.m., the two remaining birds had landed in the area and were being tracked by WCEP crew members.

A new stopover site this year, just eight miles from the Necedah refuge in Juneau County, proved valuable as the air aloft was rough, making a longer first leg of the migration a difficult prospect.

In 2001, project partner Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight surrogates south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Each subsequent year, WCEP biologists and pilots conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR.

The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. There, the young cranes are introduced to ultralight aircraft and raised in isolation from humans. To ensure the impressionable cranes remain wild, project biologists and pilots adhere to a strict no-talking rule, broadcast recorded crane calls and wear costumes designed to mask the human form whenever they are around the cranes.

New classes of cranes are transported to Necedah NWR each June to begin a summer of conditioning behind the ultralights to prepare them for their fall migration. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights at the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes are deemed ready to follow the aircraft along the migration route.

Graduated classes of whoopers spend much of their time during the summer in central Wisconsin where they use areas on or near the Necedah and Horicon national wildlife refuges, as well as various state and private lands.

Project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor southbound cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make along the way. In the spring, the ICF and FWS biologists actively track the cranes as they make their way back north, and continue to monitor the birds, with the assistance of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologists, while the whooping cranes are in their summer locations.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 300 birds in the wild. Aside from the 42 Wisconsin-Florida birds, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 90 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 600 feet; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 600 feet or, if on a public road, within 300 feet. 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 whooping cranes.

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members include 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 estimated $1.8 million annual budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.

As the majority of support for this project comes from private sources, individual contributions are always welcome. Tax-exempt donations may be sent to any of the private non-profit organizations in the partnership. For more information on the project, its partners, and how you can help, visit the WCEP website at

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