News Releases

Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project Meets with Success – and Surprises – but These Endangered Birds Still Face Many Dangers

Blown off course by strong winds, eight of the 16 young cranes from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s (WCEP) 2003 ultralight-led migration flew east of their predicted migration route in April. The group split into two, with five birds in western Michigan, and three others moving around in the southern Michigan and northern Indiana area.

The eight birds veered off course during their first unassisted spring migration from Florida to central Wisconsin. The group has been moving around western Michigan and northern Ohio for several weeks, seemingly stymied by how to cross Lake Michigan.

Biologists from the International Crane Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to monitor these eight cranes, along with their flock mates who have returned to Wisconsin for the summer.

“We are watching these eight birds very carefully and learning a great deal from the choices they are making; but mostly, we are just letting them do their thing,” said Kelley R. Tucker, vice president of programs at the International Crane Foundation, a founding partner of WCEP. “We also ask that anyone fortunate enough to encounter these birds please observe them from a distance and not attempt to approach them.”

Preventing the cranes from becoming accustomed to humans is critical to ensuring their success in the wild. Several incidents along these eight birds’ meandering migration illustrate the rigors faced by wild animals attempting to navigate and survive in a human world.

For example, when WCEP biologist Richard Urbanek checked on the group of three when they moved into the southwest portion of Michigan, he noticed the top of an aluminum can lodged on the beak of crane number 12-03.

Urbanek was able to remove the can top by donning a costume, which is worn by caretakers and pilots when imprinting the young chicks, and then baiting the young bird with corn. If gone unnoticed, this young female whooping crane could have perished as she was not able to eat or drink with the piece of trash preventing her from opening her beak. Ironically the phrase “Please don’t litter-dispose of properly” is visible in a photo of the can Urbanek removed. (View the photo online at

“We are overwhelmed by the tremendous support we have received for this project, and while we appreciate the interest that people worldwide have taken in these young whooping cranes, we also ask that you help us continue the success of the reintroduction effort by helping to ensure the ‘wildness’ of these young birds,” said Tucker.

This is not the first time whooping cranes have shown up in Michigan in recent years. In the summer of 2000, two whooping cranes from an experimental non-migratory flock in Florida migrated more than 1,000 miles on their own to rural Michigan. This unexpected development resulted in the first whooping crane sighting in Michigan in more than 100 years. The male of this pair died during the pair’s return autumn journey, but the female made it back to Florida, and whooping cranes did not return to Michigan again–until recently.

“Michigan is excited to have these rare birds in our state,” said Michigan DNR Director Becky Humphries. “The people of Michigan will help ensure these birds are monitored and protected while they are here.”

WCEP would like to thank not only the Michigan DNR, but also natural resources agencies in Indiana and Ohio, along with the U.S. Forest Service in Michigan and others who have helped to monitor these eight cranes.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of public and private groups, is organizing the effort to reintroduce this highly imperilled species in eastern North America, which was a part of its historic range.

In 2001, project partner Operation Migration’s pilots, along with other WCEP members, led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight surrogates south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR on Florida’s Gulf Coast. In 2002 and 2003, Operation Migration pilots conditioned and guided a second and third group of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. Those cranes have begun returning to their summer home in central Wisconsin, and there are now 36 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern 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.

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.

New classes of cranes are transported to Necedah NWR each June to begin a summer of conditioning behind the ultralights to prepare them for their fall migration. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights at the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes are deemed ready to follow the aircraft along the migration route.

Graduated classes of whoopers spend much of their time during the summer on or near the Necedah and Horicon national wildlife refuges, both of which are in central Wisconsin. They also use state and private lands. It is not unusual for yearling cranes to wander, especially if they are not associating with any male flockmates, which typically select the future breeding territory.

Project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor southbound cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make along the way. ICF and FWS biologists actively track the cranes as they make their way north, and continue to monitor the birds, along with Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologists, while the whooping cranes are in their summer locations.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 275 birds in the wild. Aside from the 36 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.

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. They are distinctive animals, standing five feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.

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 $1.8 million budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.


WCEP founding members:
International Crane, Foundation
Operation Migration, Inc.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
 and National Wildlife Health Center
International Whooping Crane Recovery Team
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin

Educators and students are encouraged to visit Journey South for information and curriculum materials related to the whooping crane project:

WCEP informational materials will be available at all Wild Birds Unlimited affiliates. To find the location nearest you please visit: