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Endangered Birds Follow Planes to Florida

A human-led migration of whooping cranes took off from 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. Only four of them made it. The others dropped out, proving how difficult it is to re-establish a wild migrating population of whooping cranes, when at one time their population had dwindled to just fifteen birds. Seven of the dropout birds were caught and caged for transport, as they were unable to make the journey on their own.

“Safeguarding an endangered species does not come with guarantees. More than simply an experiment in wildlife reintroduction, it is a struggle against all odds, ” said Joe Duff, the CEO of Operation Migration. (Source:

Whooping Cranes are named for their unique calls. They are America’s tallest birds at four to five feet high, and have a very energy-efficient style of gliding. They ride upwelling currents of warmed air and then drift back down, repeating this movement over and over so they can cover long distances.

Hunting and habitat loss caused whooping cranes to nearly go extinct. Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada is the only place there is a breeding wild population. A whooping crane breeding program in captivity was started in Wisconsin, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership Reintroduction Project. Once a population in captivity was established, it was decided they should be trained to fly to Florida during winter months.

In Operation Migration, tiny manned aircrafts were created to train the birds to make the journey. They have been using planes with the cranes for ten years. This group of birds in training, the Eastern Migratory Population, is estimated to be 96. The total number of wild whooping cranes, including those breeding in Canada is about 400. The wild Canadian population flies to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas each winter. That population is about 260.

Operation Migration has a field journal where daily accounts of taking the birds on the 1,200 mile journey are posted. This is just one small sample, “A bird was down in a field there and I headed out to help Jess track her down. Just before we arrived, the bird decided to take off from the lovely grass where she was and she flew about a mile into a swamp – perfect for her and not so perfect for us humans. Jess and I waded out, with Brooke overhead.” (Source: Operation Migration)

Image Credit: Public Domain

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5:20AM PDT on Mar 28, 2011


9:18AM PDT on Mar 17, 2011

I see Christopher Fowler and others, has already mentioned the movie we just saw (Fly Away Home) which was a dramatic presentation of the Operation Migration group. The movie had a trailer that was excellent and gave the whole story of these dedicated men and women who achieved this.

By the way the movie was a pretty accurate depiction of the groups activities, right down to the little lame bird, Igor.

1:34AM PST on Feb 20, 2011

Thanks for the info.

12:46PM PST on Feb 19, 2011

What a fascinating story.

12:45PM PDT on Nov 2, 2010

awesome but i have to agree with the educated christopher fowler it's always too good to be really true to be really awesome

8:14AM PDT on Oct 24, 2010


4:36PM PDT on Oct 22, 2010

Amazing story&video, thank you Jake!

6:57AM PDT on Oct 22, 2010

Really enjoyed reading this.

7:26PM PDT on Oct 19, 2010

Thanks for sharing!

7:24AM PDT on Oct 19, 2010


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