Eighteen young whooping cranes are winging their way south on their first fall migration. This is the 11th group of birds to take part in the project led by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), a coalition of public and private groups that is reintroducing this highly imperiled species in eastern North America, part of its historic range.
Eight of the 18 cranes were released recently at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Dodge County, Wisconsin. The cranes were hatched and raised by biologists with project partner International Crane Foundation. The eight birds were released in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds will learn the migration route south. This is the seventh year WCEP has used this Direct Autumn Release (DAR) method.
“We are proud of the remarkable efforts of the International Crane Foundation staff and interns to rear eight healthy chicks and carry on the efforts to establish a migratory population of whooping cranes in the eastern U.S.,” said Dr. Barry Hartup, Director of Veterinary Services at the International Crane Foundation.
The other 10 whooping cranes are being led south by WCEP partner Operation Migration’s ultralight aircraft. The cranes left the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Green Lake and Marquette Counties, Wisconsin on October 9. The ultralight-led birds are currently in Marquette County, Wisconsin. Three ultralight aircraft and the juvenile cranes will travel through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to reach the birds’ wintering habitats at Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“The staff and managers of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources have put forth a tremendous effort to make this project work and we are very grateful,” said Joe Duff, senior ultralight pilot and CEO of Operation Migration.
For the past 10 years the DAR and ultralight-led whooping cranes have been released on Necedah NWR. Many of these cranes have reached breeding age and have hatched chicks on the refuge. To date, three wild-hatched Whooping Crane chicks have fledged and successfully migrated in this population. This level of nest success is, however, not yet enough to sustain the population. As part of WCEP’s experimentation with improving reproduction in this flock, Horicon NWR and White River Marsh State Wildlife Area were chosen as new locations for releasing birds in 2011. These sites are based on what biologists have learned about cranes released at Necedah NWR and their habitat and nesting requirements.
“The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was delighted to be able to host this important annual event and is proud to continue its partnership with WCEP,” said Cathy Stepp, Secretary of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“We are thrilled about being part of this historic effort to re-establish an eastern migratory population of this beautiful bird,” said Diane Kitchen, Acting Refuge Manager of Horicon NWR.
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, Wisconsin. 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.
Most of the whooping cranes released in previous years spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near Necedah NWR, as well as other public and private lands. In the spring and fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources 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.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 575 birds in existence, approximately 400 of them in the wild. The 18 juvenile WCEP cranes join the birds released in previous years, which currently total 96. In addition to the WCEP birds, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada and winters at Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 25 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region, and an additional five non-migratory cranes live in southern Louisiana.
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; remain in your vehicle; 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 or photograph whooping cranes.