Tenth Group of Endangered Whooping Cranes on Ultralight-guided Flight to Florida Flies into Georgia

By: UDFWS Press Release
By: UDFWS Press Release

Ten young whooping cranes have completed three quarters of their
migration from Wisconsin to Florida.

They flew into Georgia from Alabama today and landed in Clay County, Ga. Only six to seven months old, the cranes have now traveled 979 miles and have another 306 to go. Half of the cranes will be finished sooner though.

Five cranes, selected by sex, genetics, and flight behavior, will be led
to St. Marks NWR, launching from the Jefferson County, Fl. stopover.

This is the 10th 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. There are now about 106
whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America thanks to their

"We are proud to be part of this effort to bring this magnificent bird
species back from the brink of extinction," said Cindy Dohner, Southeast
Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This is
another example of people working together to help overcome monumental challenges that many species face in surviving in a landscape greatly altered by mankind."

Eleven cranes started this journey, but the diagnosis of a torn tendon
in the wing of whooping crane number 2-10 by Nashville, Tenn. avian vet,
Dr. Michael Lutz, ended its chances of being released into the wild.
WCEP officials determined the crane would be returned to U.S. Geologic
Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center where he will become part of
the Whooping Crane Recovery Captive Population. The crane was
transported there on Sunday, Dec. 5. Since departing Necedah on the
2010 migration, he had travelled in a crate in the back of a van for all
but about 40 miles of the 900-plus air miles logged by his classmates.

Three ultralight aircraft and the juvenile cranes are traveling through
Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach
the birds' wintering habitats at St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National
Wildlife Refuges along Florida's Gulf Coast.

"Safeguarding an endangered species does not come with guarantees." said Joe Duff, senior ultralight pilot and CEO of Operation Migration. "This
is more than simply an experiment in wildlife reintroduction; it is a
struggle against all odds."

While the ultralight-led cranes will fly through Georgia's southwestern
corner, whooping cranes from previous year classes are sometimes spotted migrating through the state, said Nongame Conservation Section Chief Mike Harris of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. As of late November, four of the tall, white birds had been reported in central
south Georgia.

"Be on the lookout," and report sightings at
www.fws.gov/midwest/whoopingcrane/sightings/sightingform.cfm," Harris

Want to see them?

Live streaming video of the flight is available, subject to wireless
signal strength and technical capacity. Visit:

You can see a take-off on Nov. 6 on YouTube by visiting here:


In 2001, Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight aircraft surrogates, south from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Each subsequent year, biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Florida. Having been shown the way once, the young birds initiate their return migration in the spring, and in subsequent years, continue to migrate on their own. In 2008, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge along Florida’s Gulf Coast was added as an additional wintering site for the juvenile cranes.

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.

In the spring and fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the 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 and wintering grounds.

Most of the whooping cranes released in previous years spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, as well as other public and private lands.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 570 birds in existence, about 400 of them in the wild. Aside from the 95 cranes released by the partnership, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of about 25 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.

More than 60 percent of the project’s budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.

Why not let the cranes teach each other? We do that too.

In addition to the 11 birds being led south by ultralights, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the Service reared 11 other whooping cranes at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds will learn the migration route. They were released on Oct. 25. One was killed on Oct. 30 by a predator at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. This is the sixth year the partnership has used this Direct Autumn Release method.

The ultralight-led and Direct Autumn Release chicks are this year joining two wild-hatched chicks in the 2010 cohort.

Seven chicks initially hatched this year in the wild, the largest number to hatch in project history. Wild-hatched chicks face a precarious existence in the first weeks of their lives, and natural loss of chicks due to predation is common. The two wild whooping crane chicks are the result of renesting. Earlier this spring, nine breeding pairs of whooping cranes built nests and laid eggs, but all nine pairs abandoned those first nests. The nest abandonments earlier this spring are similar to what has been observed in previous years. The partnership is investigating the cause of the abandonments through analysis of data collected throughout the nesting period on crane behavior and black fly abundance and distribution.

Encountering a whooping crane in the wild?

Please give them the respect and distance they need.
Do not trespass on private property to view or photograph whooping cranes.
Please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you.
Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards.
Do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards and remain in your vehicle.

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership 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

· National Wildlife Health Center

· National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

· Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin

· 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.

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