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Juvenile Whooping Cranes Forage on Wheeler NWR. Photo by Bill Gates, USFWS.

Ultralight migration leads 20 endangered whooping cranes into Georgia

Twenty juvenile whooping cranes and several chilly pilots in ultralights reached Decatur County, Georgia, today on their ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Floridas Gulf Coast.

“Successfully restoring a population of a migratory species is a huge challenge and this pioneering effort is demonstrating the need for long-term commitment,” said Mike Harris, Nongame Conservation Section chief with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

These majestic birds, the tallest in North America, left Necedah refuge on October 23, following Operation Migration’s four ultralight aircraft. Georgia is one of the seven states on the route to Florida.

“I hope all Americans appreciate this monumental and inspiring project to save this species for future generations,” said Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Regional Director.

A public flyover is planned at San Marcos de Apalache State Park in St. Marks, Florida. For more information, call St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge at (850) 925-6121, or visit Operation Migration’s Field Journal. Another event is planned at Dunnellon Airport, in between Crystal River and Ocala, Florida. For more information on that event, call (352) 563-2088 x213

There are now 85 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America – including the first whooping crane chick to hatch in the wild in Wisconsin in more than a century. One crane from an earlier cohort was recently shot and killed in Indiana.

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

Each fall, pilots from Operation Migration (OM), a WCEP founding partner, leads a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultralight aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida. Unaided, the cranes will make the return migration to the Upper Midwest in the spring.

“This is the second time we have led birds through this part of Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, Georgia, and I am still amazed at the support this project generates,” said Joe Duff, C.E.O, Operation Migration, Inc. “Without help from land-owners who allow us to use their property or the airport managers who provide hangar space for our flimsy aircraft this project could not be done. We are grateful to all the people who provide pumpkins for the birds, showers for the crew members or dinners. Your generosity is greatly appreciated.”

The ultra-led flock from Necedah NWR passed through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, Alabama, and passes through Georgia to reach their final destinations in Florida. Because the ability to fly with the birds is entirely weather dependent, the duration of the migration is unknown. To help speed the migration and improve safety for the birds and the pilots, a new route was developed last year that takes the team around the Appalachian Mountains, rather than over them.

In addition to the 20 ultralight-led birds, biologists from the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and the Service reared nine whooping cranes at Necedah NWR. The birds were released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds will learn the migration route. This is the fifth year WCEP has used this Direct Autumn Release method.

Whooping cranes that take part in the ultralight and Direct Autumn Release reintroductions are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., and at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. Chicks are raised under a strict isolation protocol and to ensure the birds remain wild, handlers adhere to a no-talking rule and wear costumes designed to mask the human form.

Most of the reintroduced whooping cranes spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on the Necedah NWR, as well as various state and private lands. Reintroduced whooping cranes have also spent time in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and other upper Midwest states.

In the spring and fall, project staff from ICF and the Service track and monitor the released 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 by WCEP project staff. ICF and Service biologists continue to monitor the birds while they are in their summer locations.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team has established a target number for this reintroduction. Once there are at least 125 individuals, including 25 breeding pairs, migrating in this eastern corridor the population could be considered self sustaining.

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 85 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 Coast. Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and seeds. They are distinctive animals, standing five feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.

A non-migrating flock of about 30 birds lives year-round in central Florida. The remaining 150 whooping cranes are in captivity in zoos and breeding facilities around North America.

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 $1.6 million annual budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsorship.

Download the Wisconsin Whooping Crane Management Plan, which describes project goals and management and monitoring strategies shared and implemented by the partners.

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. Visit the Service’s website at or


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