News Releases

Fourth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes Leaves Wisconsin for Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida

Building on the success of three historic migrations led by Operation Migration Inc., a fourth generation of endangered whooping cranes began a similar migration today from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.

Guided by three ultralight aircraft, 15 juvenile whooping cranes began the first leg of their 1,228-mile journey to their wintering habitat at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, along Florida’s Gulf coast.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, is organizing the effort to reintroduce this highly imperiled species in eastern North America.

“As we see a new class of whooping cranes off on their first journey south, we are building on two years of success with this unprecedented project,” said John Christian of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a founding member of WCEP and the agency that oversees the National Wildlife Refuge System. “We are also anticipating that the first two groups of cranes will make the migration this year unaided by ultralights-signaling further success for this unparalleled reintroduction effort.”

The public can follow the progress of the ultralight-led migration, as well as of the cranes from 2001, 2002, and 2003 on their solo migration, on the Web at http://www.operationmigration.org

The WCEP success story began in 2001, when eight whooping crane chicks conditioned to follow their ultralight surrogates began their first fall migration south from Necedah NWR. Seven of those whoopers made it to Florida safely, and five successfully completed an unassisted return migration back to central Wisconsin in the spring of 2002. One bird from this “Class of 2001” was lost during the migration after colliding with a power line when it escaped its enclosure during a storm, and two others were lost to bobcat predation during the winter. Both power lines and predation are key threats to whooping cranes in the wild.

The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, 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.

All graduated classes of whoopers spent much of their time this past summer on or near the Necedah and Horicon National Wildlife Refuges, both of which are in central Wisconsin.

Project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will track and monitor the 2001, 2002, and 2003 southbound cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make along the way.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 275 birds in the wild. Aside from the 20 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 100 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.

Since whooping cranes are vulnerable to extreme weather, disease and catastrophes such as oil and chemical spills, scientists and conservationists are anxious to establish additional flocks to guard against the impacts such threats might have on the species’ future.

The seven-state flyway from Wisconsin to Florida is part of the historic range of the whooping crane and this additional migrating population would be a significant step toward the eventual recovery of the species. According to Joe Duff, lead ultralight pilot and trainer of the birds and co-founder of Operation Migration Inc., a WCEP founding member, many groups can share the credit for the success this reintroduction effort has experienced thus far.

“Private landowners, corporations and individuals making tax-deductible donations, and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has come together to form a strong and determined alliance for the cranes,” Duff said. “With such support, we are giving the species its best chance for recovery.”

Reintroduction of any species also requires the support and coordination of numerous state and local government agencies. These species form an important part of each state’s natural heritage.

“Wisconsin continues its enthusiastic support for restoring whooping cranes to wetlands–a valued part of North America’s rich resource heritage,” said Beth Goodman, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Whooping Crane Coordinator. “We’re thrilled by the success of these initial years of effort.”

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. A whooping crane is a distinctive animal, standing 5 feet tall, with a white body, black wing tips and a red crest on its head.

Educators and students are encouraged to visit Journey North for information and curriculum materials related to this whooping crane project: http://www.learner.org/jnorth/fall2003/crane/index.html

NOTE TO NEWS REPORTERS: Information on how the first day went will be available online at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org. Downloadable images suitable for print media publication will also be available.

Daily updates will also be available on the Whooping Crane Information Line at 904-232-2580 ext. 124. The voicemail message will be updated by 11 a.m. Eastern (10 a.m. Central) each morning.