Project Updates – 2001

– December 2001 Whooping Crane Project Update
– Daily Updates from the 2001 Whooping Crane Fall Migration
– Sandhill Cranes from Last Year’s Migration Study with Ultralight > Aircraft have Left Their Wintering Grounds
– Ultralight-Led Sandhill Cranes Return to Necedah Wildlife Refuge
– Video from the 2001 Migration

December 2001 Whooping Crane Project Update

ultralight plane flying with whooping cranes

The whooping cranes flying over Crystal River, Florida near the end of their migration.
Jeffrey Huxmann/Sunshine Productions HC/Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership


Whooping cranes are one of the best known endangered species. They symbolize the struggle to maintain the vanishing creatures of our world. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with cooperating organizations, is taking steps to reintroduce a migratory population of whooping cranes east of the Mississippi River, nesting in Wisconsin.

Project Summary

About 1,400 whooping cranes existed in 1860. Their population declined because of hunting and habitat loss until 1941, when the last migrating flock dwindled to an all-time low of 15 wild birds. Since then, the wild population has slowly increased to over 170 on recent migrations. This flock winters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf coast of Texas and migrates to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. This flock is the only naturally occurring wild population in the world. Scientists have long recognized the risk of having all of the wild whooping cranes using one wintering and breeding location. With the cranes concentrated in one area, the population could be wiped out by disease, natural disaster, or human impacts. Whooping crane survival depends on additional, separated populations.

The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, and an extensive group of federal, state and private partners called the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, is reintroducing a second, migratory flock of whooping cranes into the eastern United States. This flock is expected to nest in central Wisconsin, after release at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, and they will migrate to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

The Sandhill Crane Test Migration

During the summer of 2000, a pilot project testing the rearing techniques for whooping cranes was conducted at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge using sandhill crane chicks. These young birds were reared by people dressed in crane “costumes” using crane puppets. On October 3, the cranes began their migration to Florida following ultralight aircraft on the longest human-led migration, covering 1,250 miles. Eleven cranes arrived at their destination on November 11. On February 25, the cranes began their unassisted return migration to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge from Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. They arrived back in central Wisconsin at the end of April.

This phase of the project allowed biologists to refine a vital link in the reintroduction project. In wild crane populations, chicks follow their parents south on the fall migration, then return north the next spring on their own. When re-creating a new population of whooping cranes, there are no adults available to lead the next generations on a migration. Humans have taken on the role of “surrogate parents,” carefully selecting a migratory route and safely leading the cranes between chosen locations.

Whoopers in Wisconsin!

The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team met in January and evaluated the sandhill crane test project. A decision was reached to proceed with a similar release of whooping cranes in 2001.

A public comment period was held to allow input on the proposed federal rule to designate

Ultralight in a field with whoopers

Whooping cranes and ultralights about to take off from a field in Sauk County, Wisconsin.
Photo by Wisconsin DNR; Bob Manwell

this as an “experimental, nonessential” population. The comments were incorporated into a final document that was sent to Washington, D.C. Final approval to proceed with the reintroduction project was granted upon publication of the final rule on June 26, 2001. Prior to advancing with the project, two flyway councils, seven states directly on the flight path, and 13 adjacent states approved easements for the crane project.

Ten whooping crane chicks hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland between May 7 and May 24. They were shipped via private aircraft to Wisconsin, arriving at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge on July 10. Before their release into pens on a secluded refuge marsh, the chicks underwent a rigorous medical examination.

Initially still too young to fly, the chicks followed behind the costumed pilots as they drove the ultralights on the ground. Once their flight feathers grew in, the young whooping cranes took their first actual flight as a group on August 11. Training continued daily over the marshes of the Necedah Refuge. As their flight muscles developed, they followed the airborne ultralight on gradually longer trips.

The Migration to Florida

On October 17, the unique flock departed on fall migration. High winds, along with fog and warm temperatures on the southern part of the journey slowed their progress. The group of seven cranes arrived at Chassahowitzka NWR on December 3: 48 days and 1,218 miles from their starting point.

Thanks to the efforts of organizations involved in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, endangered whooping cranes will again be seen in the Midwest after a 100-year absence. The recovery goal for the new migratory flock is 125 birds in Wisconsin by the year 2020, with a minimum of 25 breeding pairs.

For Additional Information: check out these web sites:

International Crane Foundation
Operation Migration, Inc.
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Daily Updates from the 2001 Whooping Crane Fall Migration

Migration began Ocober 17 – completed on December 3

place cursor over circles for date and location of each migration stop

Map of 22 eastern U.S. states and whooping crane migration route - with each stop marked

Oct. 29 - Nov. 2 Kankakee Cty., Illinois Oct. 17 - 20 in Adams Cty. Oct. 17 - Migration Begins Oct. 21 in Sauk Cty. Oct. 22 - 26 Green Cty. Nov. 3 -4 Boone Cty., Indiana Nov. 5 Morgan Cty., Indiana Nov 6 - Jennings Cty., Indiana Nov. 7 - Washington Cty., Kentucky Nov. 8 - Adair Cty., Kentucky Nov. 9 - 11 Cumberland Cty., TN Nov. 12 - Bledsoe Cty., TN Nov. 14 - Gordon Cty., GA Nov. 15 - Coweta Cty., GA Nov. 15 - Pike Cty., GA Nov. 17 - Marion Cty., GA Nov. 18 - 20 Terrell Cty., GA Nov. 21 - 23 Cook Cty., GA Nov. 29 - Dec. 1 Gilchrest Cty., FL Nov. 24 - 25 Hamilton Cty., FL Nov. 26 - 28 Suwannee Cty., FL Dec. 3 - Chassahowitzka NWR Dec. 2 - Levy Cty., FL Oct. 27 -28 Dekalb Cty., Illinois
Go Here for All the 2001 Daily Updates


2003 Fall Migration Route and Daily Updates

2002 Fall Migration Route and Daily Updates

Sandhill Cranes from Last Year’s Migration Study with Ultralight Aircraft have Left Their Wintering Grounds

Most of the sandhill cranes that were led by ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida have departed their wintering grounds at St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve north of Tampa, Florida. Ten of the eleven birds left their pen area on Sunday, February 25th. Bird #13, a female that was somewhat of a loner, remains at St. Martins, managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The crane tracker who’d hoped to follow the birds north was unable to depart St. Martins Marsh that morning due to his tracking vehicle not yet being operable, and by the next day, could not pick up their radio signals.

adult sandhill cranes

The crane biologists working on this project are not concerned. These birds were raised to be wild and wild birds don’t give notice when they are going to fly somewhere! The geese, swans and sandhill cranes from Operation Migration Inc.’s nine previous migration studies resulted in birds returning to their rearing area on their own. This flock’s rearing area is Necedah National Wildlife Refuge near Tomah, Wisconsin. The refuge staff at Necedah and crane biologists at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, have put up their radio receivers, and will be checking for returning cranes by radiotelemetry.Though the birds are outfitted with multi-colored leg bands on their left leg and a red/green radio transmitter on their right leg, it is unlikely that they will be spotted, particularly if they have joined with the thousands of wild sandhill cranes now migrating north. It is also unknown whether these experimental sandhill cranes will stay together as a flock or separate into smaller groups on their journey. Nevertheless, state and federal biologists along the seven state flyway are keeping their eyes open.

If you think you have seen these birds, please do not under any circumstances approach them. Thank you. It is vitally important that they still remain afraid of people, as all wild creatures do. Again, thank you for respecting their wildness.And if you are fairly certain that you have seen these birds, please share your information with the crane tracker by leaving a message at 352-564-8321, or 612-804-0959. Thank you… and please check back with us for further updates.

Ultralight-Led Sandhill Cranes Return to Necedah Wildlife Refuge


Video from the 2001 Migration

Photo of an ultralight leading six whooping cranes. Photo by David Umberger
photo by David Umberger


Nov. 10 and 11, 2001 video (RealPlayer) of how the migration team looked for and found the whooping crane that left the migrating flock (courtesy of Sunshine Productions HC)

Oct. 31, 2001 video of the migration with narration (courtesy of Sunshine Productions HC)

Video of Whooping Crane Training from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (Sept. 5, 2001)
(courtesy of Sunshine Productions HC)

Quicktime Version (1.82MB)
RealPlayer Version (380KB)



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