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Sixth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes Depart on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida

October 5, 2006

Joan Garland, 608-356-9462, x142; 608-381-1262 (cell)
Rachel F. Levin, 612-713-5311


Eighteen young whooping cranes began their ultralight-led migration from central Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge today – the sixth group of birds to take part in a landmark project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups which is reintroducing this highly imperiled species in eastern North America, part of its historic range.

At about 7:30 a.m., four ultralight aircraft and 18 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.

Seventeen cranes followed behind three aircraft and landed at the first stopover site approximately five miles south of the refuge. The remaining bird landed back at the refuge but was later picked up by one of the ultralights and followed the aircraft to the stopover site.

“Each fall our year’s work culminates in the excitement of migration,” said Joe Duff co-founder, CEO and senior pilot for Operation Migration, the WCEP partner that leads the ultralight migration. “This season, one unique chick in the Class of ’06 will make the migration extra special. Young 2-06 was hatched in captivity from an egg laid by parents from our ultralight-led Class of 2002 when through inexperience, they abandoned their nest.

“As a result, this year, to our usual role as surrogate parents, we have the added joy of acting as surrogate grandparents,” Duff continued. “2-06’s safe arrival in Florida will mark another project milestone; the first second generation whooping crane to be taught a migration route.”

Crane 2-06 is the first crane hatched from the reintroduced eastern migratory whooping crane population. Hatched on May 7, at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., 2-06’s parents are whooping cranes 13 (a male) and 18 (a female) from the ultralight-led crane Class of 2002.

There are now 61 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America as a result of WCEP’s reintroduction efforts, as well as two chicks that hatched in the wild from reintroduced cranes this summer—the first whooping cranes hatched in the wild in Wisconsin in more than a century.

The two wild whooping crane chicks hatched on June 22 at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. They are offspring of reintroduced whooping crane pair 11-02 (male) and 17-02 (female) from the ultralight-led class of 2002. The pair nested this spring at the refuge, but their egg or eggs were lost, likely due to predators. They renested and began incubating on May 23.

The wild-hatched crane chicks—dubbed W-01 and W-02--stuck close to their parents on their territory at Necedah NWR for much of the summer until fledging, or gaining their flight feathers, in early September. One of the chicks stayed behind when its parents and sibling moved from their territory, and as of today that chick has not been located. The other chick, a female, was recently leg-banded with a radio transmitter so that she can be tracked by WCEP biologists.

In addition to the 18 birds being led south by ultralights, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are rearing five whooping cranes at Necedah NWR. The birds will be released in the company of older cranes in hopes that the young whooping cranes learn the migration route, part of WCEP’s “Direct Autumn Release” program, which supplements the successful ultralight migrations. One of the cranes sustained a wing injury on October 2. The bird is recovering well, but it is unknown at this time if he will be released this fall.

The reintroduction project suffered three mortalities this summer. Male whooping crane 17-04 was found dead in late May at the Sandhill State Wildlife Area, Wis. Crane 2-03, a male, was found dead in Monroe County, Wis., on July 16. The remains of crane 3-02, a female, were found on July 25 at Necedah NWR.

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

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, Md. 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 brought 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.

Most graduated classes of whoopers spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, as well as various state and private lands. Reintroduced whooping cranes have also spent time in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and other states.

In the fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor wild 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, ICF and FWS biologists actively track the cranes as they make their way north again, and continue to monitor the birds, with the assistance of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologists, while they are in their summer locations.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 500 birds in existence, 350 of them in the wild. Aside from the 61 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 55 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region. The remaining 150 whooping cranes are in captivity in zoos and breeding facilities around North America.

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 are 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.

For more information on the project, its partners and how you can help, visit the WCEP website at


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