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Juvenile Whooping Cranes in their holding pen at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Decatur, AL. Photo by USFWS.

Ultralight migration leads 20 endangered whooping cranes over the skies of Alabama

Twenty juvenile whooping cranes reached Franklin County, Alabama, on December 17, 2009, 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.

These majestic birds, the tallest in North America, left Necedah refuge on October 23, following Operation Migration’s four ultralight aircraft. Alabama is one of the seven states the ultralight-guided migration will fly over before reaching Florida.

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.

“Two of our refuges in the Southeast, St. Marks and Chassahowitzka serve as a crucial base of winter operations for these great birds,” said Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Regional Director. “I hope all Americans and all those interested in saving species for future generation can appreciate the monumental task this truly is.”

“This is a great example of how conservation partnerships work to benefit wildlife,” said Corky Pugh, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Director.

There are now 77 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.

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, 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, shower 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, and passes through Alabama, and Georgia to reach the 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.


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