By Ann Hingas

On Oct. 17, a tiny flock of eight Whooping Cranes took flight in central Wisconsin to follow an ultralight aircraft all the way to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

That’s the plan. If all goes well, it will be a history-making flight as it will establish the first migrating population of Whooping Cranes east of the Mississippi since the huge, white birds all but disappeared over 60 years ago. While there is a small migratory flock of whoopers in the west, there is only a small group of non-migratory birds in the east. They spend all year in Florida. In all, there are only about 400 Whooping Cranes left alive in North America.

The young birds in Wisconsin were hatched last spring at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Ten cranes were shipped to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. All ten were to have attempted the migratory flight; however, one died of stress after being fitted with a radio collar and another has a deformed wing and will not be able to make the long flight to Florida. That bird will be permanently relocated to a refuge in Louisiana.

Since they arrived in Wisconsin, the young whoopers have been in training, learning to follow their surrogate human parents. All humans interacting with the young whoopers dress in white crane "costumes" or use crane hand puppets when the birds are inside cages. This is done to make sure the birds do not become too attached to humans.

They are being trained by a Canadian group called Operation Migration. The pilot who will lead the young cranes south, Joe Duff, also dresses in a white crane costume. He expects to take off with his following in the early morning of Oct. 15 and expects to arrive at the Florida refuge in late November. The trip covers 1,250 miles.

You probably remember last year’s experiment with Sandhill Cranes. Sandhills, which are abundant, were used to test the ultralight migration idea. Those birds lifted off from Necedah on Oct. 3 and arrived at Chassahowitzka on Nov. 13. That flight crossed Indiana, and the upcoming flight of endangered Whooping Cranes is set to follow the same route. If all goes as planned, the aircraft and birds will pass close to Bloomington.

While only one of the sandhills died during last year’s warm-up experiment, nobody knows what to expect with the Whooping Cranes. According to biologists working on the project, Whooping Cranes are much more delicate than their cousins.

According to pilot Duff, the cranes will fly between 20 and 30 minutes a day and cover 20 or more miles, depending on weather. Last year, the experimental flock of Sandhill Cranes passed through south central Indiana about 10 days after leaving Wisconsin.

"About 1,400 whooping cranes existed in 1860. Their population declined because of hunting and habitat loss until 1941, when the last migrating flock dwindled to an all-time low of 15 wild birds. Since then, the wild population has slowly increased to over 170 on recent migrations. This flock winters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf coast of Texas and migrates to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. This flock is the only naturally occurring wild population in the world. Scientists have long recognized the risk of having all of the wild whooping cranes using one wintering and breeding location. With the cranes concentrated in one area, the population could be wiped out by disease, natural disaster, or human impacts. Whooping crane survival depends on additional, separated populations," says the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership in explaining why the migration experiment is so important.

The ultralight migration is the first step in bringing this spectacular bird back to the lands and skies of eastern North America. Some casualties seem likely on the long flight to Florida, but biologists hope most will make it.

"Our goal is to get some Whooping Cranes on this migration so they can learn the route," said Joan Guilfoyle of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

You can see photos of these cranes and find out everything you ever wanted to know about them on the internet at http://www.bringbackthecranes.org

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