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Long white birds flying in formation behind a fan powered glider.
Information icon We hope for a tremendous viewing audience for this amazing spectacle! Photo by Nick Baldwin, a refuge volunteer.

Seven whooping cranes fly into Georgia following ultralight aircraft

Seven whooping cranes following pilots in two ultralight aircraft lifted off from Pike County, Alabama today and flew 117 miles before landing in Decatur County, Georgia.

It sounds very simple, but in reality is amazingly difficult.  Why?  Well it seems cranes just have minds of their own.  And if it’s cold, or the wind isn’t right, they don’t just automatically follow these brave pilots dressed up like whooping cranes flying ultralight aircraft.  It’s like trying to herd cats.

“This was a particularly wild morning,” said Heather Ray, outreach specialist. “It was kind of exciting for a while there with both ultralights circling the field for the cranes to follow. But it all worked out thanks to good planning by our pilots and thankfully cooperative whooping cranes.”

The entire episode was broadcast live from two “cranecams,” one at the pen site, another on the lead ultralight. You can watch those live and also see previous videos at

The cranes are part of a 14-year effort to reestablish an eastern migratory whooping population to safeguard the species survival.

The cranes and planes and entourage have been in the air or on the road for 61 days since departing from the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area on October 10. 2014.

When they reach St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, these seven cranes will be joining 97 whooping cranes in the eastern population (54 males, 43
females).  The objective is to build and sustain a flock with at least 25 breeding pairs. Estimated distribution as of December 4, 2014, included 40 whooping cranes in Indiana, 10 in Illinois, 8 in Kentucky, 6 in Tennessee, 11 in Alabama, 3 in Georgia, 6 in Florida, 10 at unknown locations, 1 not recently reported, and 2 long term missing.

The cranes can fly hundreds of miles in a day, so that snapshot may have changed greatly by now.

Florida has about a dozen in a non-migratory flock.  Louisiana has a project underway for a non-migratory flock of 40 whooping cranes.  The western flock has about 300 cranes, and about 130 are in captivity.

This is the 14th group of birds to take part in a project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing this highly imperiled species in eastern North America, part of its historical range.

WCEP partner Operation Migration is using two ultralight aircraft to lead the juvenile cranes from Wisconsin, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach the birds’ wintering habitat at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) along Florida’s Gulf Coast.  This year the cranes had to be trucked to Tennessee from Wisconsin, through Illinois and Kentucky, due to bad weather.

WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need.  Do not attempt to feed them, or approach birds on foot within 200 yards; remain in your vehicle.  Do not approach in a vehicle any closer than 100 yards.  Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, please do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view or photograph 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.  For more information visit:

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 budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.

To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP whooping crane observation webpage at:


Heather Ray, Operation Migration

Phil Kloer, USFWS

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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