Endangered Whooping Cranes ‘Learning’ To Migrate

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Whooping Cranes are named for their unique calls. They are America’s tallest birds standing at four to five feet tall. These birds have a very energy-efficient style of gliding. They ride upwelling currents of warmed air and then drift back down. This movement is repeated over and over again so they are capable of flying long distances.

Hunting and habitat loss have caused whooping cranes to go nearly extinct. Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada is the only place there is a breeding wild population.

A breeding program for whooping cranes in captivity was started at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and known as the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership Reintroduction Project. Once a population in captivity was established, the group decided the birds should be trained to fly south to Florida during winter months.

This migration of whooping cranes were led by humans and started at a wildlife refuge in Wisconsin on October 10th bound for Florida. Three ultra-light manned aircrafts led eleven whooping cranes out of the refuge area towards their first stopover 23 miles away. Unfortunately only four of them made it.

The other seven dropped out which proved how difficult it is to re-establish a wild migrating population of whooping cranes. (At one time the Whooping Crane population had dwindled to just fifteen birds.) The seven dropout birds were caught and caged for transport since they were unable to make the journey on their own.

In Operation Migration, the birds were trained using tiny manned aircrafts in order to prepare the birds to make the journey. Planes have been used in working with the cranes for ten years. This group of birds in training is known as the Eastern Migratory Population and is estimated to be comprised of 96 cranes. The total number of wild whooping cranes including those breeding in Canada is about 400. Approximately 260 wild Canadian Whooping Cranes fly to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas each winter.

This year, the group is trying to lead 11 young birds hatched this year on the migration route. Today they are still grounded in Winnebago County Illinois so cross your fingers and pray for calmer winds. Kudos to the men and women dedicated to this project. If you want to follow their progress: http://operationmigration.org/Field_Journal.html

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