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: Ocala.com)
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