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Ultralight Migration Leads 18 Endangered Whooping Cranes over the Skies of Kentucky

November 20, 2006

Tom MacKenzie, 404/679-7291
Liz Condie, 905-982-1096 Cell: 905-718-1034


Eighteen whooping crane chicks reached have crossed into the Southeast Region, continuing their journey to Florida by reaching Shelby County, Kentucky on November 18. Today, the cranes remained in Washington, County, central Kentucky, after windy conditions prevented flight.

The whooping cranes are on a 1,228-mile ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's Gulf Coast. They left Wisconsin on October 5, following four ultralight aircraft.

To date, the birds have traveled 554.5 miles. Follow the migration on the web by going to The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, is conducting this project in an effort to reintroduce this endangered species in eastern North America.

“The State of Kentucky is a key partner in this unprecedented effort to reintroduce whooping cranes into the eastern flyway,” said Sam Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a WCEP founding partner. “We are grateful for the efforts of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and our other state colleagues in helping to make this project a success. Quite simply, we couldn’t do this without them.”

Possible flyover for the public at Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery

Operation Migration pilots leading the Class of 2006 are going to try their best to over fly the Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery as they leave Kentucky for Tennessee. The Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery is located at 50 Kendall Road, Jamestown, Kentucky, 42629. The following link will take you to directions and a small map.

Assuming the team has flying weather tomorrow, (Tuesday, November 21st) they will leave Washington County and head for the next stopover location, which is in Adair County, Ky. Again, with good flying weather on Wednesday the 22nd, they will cover the next leg of the migration - Adair County, Ky. to Cumberland County, Tenn. The viewing opportunity would occur during the flight leaving Adair County.

It is important to remember the key role weather plays in their ability to fly on any given day. Just as weather can keep us grounded, it can also be favorable enough that we are able to skip a stopover. This means that individuals planning to go to the Hatchery to see the flyover need to keep in mind that it could happen as early as Tuesday morning. To see the ‘hoped for’ flyover on Tuesday, we suggest you be on site no later than 8:15 am. (This will happen only if there is favorable flying weather and a stop is skipped.) Failing this, on Wednesday (and each successive day until the weather is favorable for flying) we suggest you be on site no later than 7:15a.m. to view the flyover.


There are now 66 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America -- including the first whooping crane chicks to hatch 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. The wild-hatched crane chicks stuck close to their parents 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 leg-banded so that she can be tracked by WCEP biologists.

The ultralight-led Class of 2006 includes 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., Crane 2-06’s parents are whooping cranes 13 (a male) and 18 (a female) from the ultralight-led crane Class of 2002. 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 reared four whooping cranes at Necedah NWR that were released in the company of older cranes in hopes that the young birds learn the migration route, part of WCEP’s “Direct Autumn Release” program, which supplements the successful ultralight migrations.

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. 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 Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 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 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 whooping cranes 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.

Project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the Service track and monitor southbound cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted migrations and the habitat choices they make along the way. The birds are monitored during the winter in Florida and tracked as they make their way north in the spring. ICF and Service biologists, along with Wisconsin DNR biologists, continue to monitor the birds 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 66 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 central Florida. 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

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 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 545 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 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 and Native American tribal governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.


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