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Fifth Generation of Endangered Whooping Cranes Enter Kentucky Enroute to Florida


November 17, 2005

Tom MacKenzie, 404-679-7291 or 678-296-6400 cell

Nearly halfway to their winter destination, twenty ultralight-led whooping cranes entered Shelby County, Kentucky today to begin the southeastern portion of their 1,228-mile fall migration to their winter home at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River, along Florida’s gulf coast.

On October 14, the birds left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin following five ultralight aircraft operated by pilots from Operation Migration. They have traveled 486.1 miles. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of public and private groups, is conducting this project to reintroduce this highly imperiled species into eastern North America.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proud to be a partner in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership,” said Sam D. Hamilton, the Service’s Southeast Regional Director. “The Partnership began its efforts in 2001, and there are now 42 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.”

These cranes represent the fifth generation of birds to make this unique, assisted migration from Wisconsin to Florida. In 2001, pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight surrogates, south from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Gulf Coast. In the following years, Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership biologists and pilots conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

The whooping crane chicks 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. 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.”

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 eastern migratory 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 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.

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 flights. All of the team that interacts with the birds wears crane costumes to disguise their human form and uses adult crane puppet heads to mimic adult bird behaviors.

Founding members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership 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 the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership by donating resources, funding and personnel.

For daily updates and press kits, visit the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership website at Daily telephone updates are recorded at (904) 232-2580, ext. 124.


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