Necedah, Wisconsin - October 12, 2008 — In Wisconsin, the term, “snowbirds” has taken on new meaning.
For the eighth year, retired Wisconsinites traveling to Florida as temperatures drop are being joined by a group of real birds — whooping cranes, to be exact.
The latest group of whooping cranes will leave a state wildlife refuge this week as they follow an ultralight to Florida to learn the migration route.
If weather allows, the 14 young cranes, which have been practicing shorter training flights at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, will depart on Friday. The flight to two wildlife refuges on Florida’s Gulf Coast will take the flock through Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, with the birds arriving at their wintering destination in two to three months, weather permitting.
The Operation Migration flight is part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership project that’s working to reintroduce a migratory flock of whooping cranes to the eastern United States. The partnership consists of nine government and private sector organizations.
Click here to track the birds’ progress.
There are 68 wild whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population, after the second oldest whooping crane was found dead on the Necedah refuge earlier this month. Officials believe predators killed it.
In addition to the 14 chicks that will migrate behind ultralights, biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will also release six additional chicks into the company of older birds at Necedah, in the hopes that the chicks will learn the migration route from adult whoopers or sandhill cranes. This technique, called direct autumn release, has been successful with sandhill cranes.
The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, where they are raised in isolation from humans. To ensure the cranes remain wild, project biologists and pilots adhere to a no-talking rule, and use recorded adult crane calls to communicate with the young birds. Researchers also wear costumes designed to mask the human form.
Project recovery plans outline ultralight-led migrations and chick releases through at least 2010, or until the goal of a self-sustaining migratory population of 100-120 individuals and 25-30 breeding pairs is achieved.
Whooping cranes follow an ultralight during a training flight. Photo: Operation Migration
Three milestones of the whooping crane reintroduction efforts are captured in this photo: First wild family (center), two ‘Direct Release’ chicks (brown-headed birds on left), and all 5 white birds are older, ultralight-led, released birds successfully adapted to wild migrations.
Photo by Richard Urbanek, USFWS.
Fast facts about whoopers
- Whooping cranes are a 65 million-year-old species and evolved shortly after the last dinosaur disappeared.
- They are named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, and they live and breed in wetlands where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and aquatic plants.
- They stand 5-feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.
- Their population dwindled to only 15 birds back in 1942. The decline of the whooper was a largely a result of hunting and loss of habitat due to agriculture in the early 1900s.
- Only one population of whoopers exists in the wild, and migrates from nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo Park, Canada to wintering grounds at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The Wood Buffalo breeding grounds in Canada's northwestern territories were discovered in 1959. Eggs collected from the Wood Buffalo flock established a captive flock.