Seventeen Endangered Whooping Cranes Take to the Sky on
Ultralight-Guided Flight to Florida
Seventeen young whooping cranes began their ultralight-led
migration, Saturday morning, from central Wisconsin's Necedah
National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
This is the seventh group of birds to take part in a landmark
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 historic range. There are now 52 whooping
cranes in the wild in eastern North America thanks to WCEP's
Four ultralight aircraft and the juvenile cranes took to the air
for the first leg of the 1,250-mile journey to the birds' wintering
habitat at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's
"This will be our seventh migration along this route and
although we have done it before, each season brings new challenges
and the weather is always unpredictable," said Joe Duff, senior
ultralight pilot and CEO of Operation Migration, the WCEP partner
that leads the ultralight migration.
"It has consistently taken us 22 to 23 flying days to cover the
1,250 miles from here to Florida. However, each year, it seems to
take a longer period to get those 23 good weather mornings and last
season we were on the road for 76 days. The team works very hard to
prepare these birds for their first migration and they deserve a
break. We are asking everyone to hope and pray for good weather
this year and speed the birds to their new winter home."
In addition to the 17 birds being led south by ultralights,
biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service reared 10 whooping cranes at Necedah NWR.
The birds will be released in the company of older cranes in hopes
that the young whooping cranes learn the migration route, part of
WCEP's "Direct Autumn Release" program, which supplements the
successful ultralight migrations.
Whooping cranes that take part in the ultralight and Direct
Autumn Release reintroductions are hatched at the U.S. Geological
Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., and at
the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. Chicks are
raised under a strict isolation protocol and to ensure the birds
remain wild, handlers adhere to a no-talking rule and wear costumes
designed to mask the human form.
Each year since 2001, ultralight pilots of project partner
Operation Migration have conditioned and led juvenile whooping
cranes to follow their aircraft on their first migration south.
Each year's new class of young cranes is shipped from Patuxent
Wildlife Research Center to Necedah NWR in June to begin their
summer of "flight training" behind Operation Migration's
ultralights in preparation for their migration south. Pilots lead
the birds on gradually longer training flights over the refuge
throughout the summer until the young cranes have sufficient
stamina to follow the ultralights along the migration route.
Graduated classes of whooping cranes spend the summer in central
Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near Necedah NWR, as well as
various state and private lands.
In the spring and fall, project staff from the International
Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and
monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as
possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices
they make both along the way and on their summering ground.
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 200 yards; try to remain in your
vehicle; and do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. 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.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s.
Today, there are only about 350 of them in the wild. Aside from the
birds reintroduced by WCEP, 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 50 birds lives year-round in the central Florida
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.
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.
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.