Whooping crane biologist, Dr. Richard Urbanek, holds the wild whooping crane chick as it is being processed for banding.
Photo by International Crane Foundation; Eva Szyszkoski
What We Do
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) is a group of agencies, non-profit organizations and individuals, formed to restore a migratory population of whooping cranes to eastern North America. There are currently 96 whooping cranes in the Eastern migratory population as a result of WCEP's efforts.
The whooping crane (Grus americana) is a critically imperiled North American crane species with fewer than 250 birds in a single wild population that migrates between northwestern Canada and the Gulf Coast of Texas. The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team has recommended the establishment of additional populations to safeguard against extinction.
For more information about Whooping Cranes, see Questions and Answers about Whooping Cranes
Whooping cranes being released in this reintroduction project come from captive whooping crane flocks in Maryland, Wisconsin, and Alberta. Eggs laid by captive birds are hatched in incubators. Under protocols established when the project started and through 2015, chicks were then raised by project personnel under strict protocols designed to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans. To ensure the birds remained wild, handlers adhered to a no-talking rule and wore costumes designed to mask the human form while in the birds' presence.
Starting in 2016, project staff are using new techniques to raise the captive hatched chicks. The new techniques minimize chick exposure to humans before they are released into the wild.
July 6, 2016 News Release: Changes are hatching in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership
Training and Releasing Cranes
From 2001 to 2015, the whooping crane chicks were transported to Wisconsin in June where they were conditioned to follow ultralight aircraft in preparation for their fall migration to wintering grounds in Florida. Pilots led the birds on training flights over the refuge throughout the summer to build the birds' stamina. Every year, a class of cranes was been led on their first migration south from Wisconsin to Florida's Gulf Coast.
Questions and Answers about the Ultralight Migration
Beginning in 2005 the ultralight-led migration was supplemented with a second reintroduction technique called Direct Autumn Release (DAR). Young cranes are released in small groups with wild whooping cranes, with the intent that they will learn the migration route from these older, more experienced birds. After learning the migration route by following the ultralight aircraft or older cranes to the wintering areas, the young cranes make the return flight to their summering grounds in the north on their own the following spring.
Beginning in 2016, cranes will not be led by ultralights on their first migration. Instead, all captive-bred chicks will be released with wild birds to learn the migration route.
All birds are banded with a unique combination of color bands to allow for their identification in the field. Every bird is also outfitted with a VHF transmitter that allows biologists to track their locations with handheld receivers. Some of the cranes also carry satellite transmitters, which allow us to locate them if they are lost or out of range of traditional receivers. WCEP project biologists track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about migration behaviors, habitat selection, and to monitor movements and survival. Results of monitoring are reported in the the Project Updates.