News Release
Southeast Region


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Ultralight Migration Leads 20 Endangered Whooping Cranes into Georgia




January 7, 2010



Liz Condie, Operation Migration Inc., (608) 542-0829
Rick Lavender, Georgia DNR, Wildlife Resources Division (770) 918-6787
Tom MacKenzie, USFWS, (404) 679-7291


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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 Florida's  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: http://www.operationmigration.org_Field_Journal.html.  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.

A Wisconsin Whooping Crane Management Plan that describes project goals  and management and monitoring strategies shared and implemented by the  partners is online 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.  Visit the Service’s website at   or


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2010 News Releases.

Last updated: January 11, 2010