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Whooping cranes, ultralight planes take flight on annual migration

Early this morning a unique flock of 18 birds joined the millions heading south for the winter. But this group of whooping cranes had surprising-looking “birds” at the helm: four ultralight aircraft. Researchers from Operation Migration, a Port Perry, Ontario-based nonprofit, are flying the whooping cranes from central Wisconsin to Florida with the ultimate goal of reintroducing a new migrating population of the endangered species. Seventeen cranes successfully flew the initial leg—4 miles (6 kilometers)—of the 1,228-mile (1,976-kilometer) journey on their first try. One crane, however, was reluctant. A female bird “decided she was quite comfortable on the runway,” said Liz Condie, Operation Migration’s communications director. One of the ultralights headed back for her. “It took some encouragement,” Condie said, “Eventually, she decided [to do it.]”

The group is part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a team of government agencies and nonprofits in the United States and Canada working to establish a migratory population of whooping cranes in the eastern U.S. This year is a major milestone for the project: A pair of cranes that the group first led along the route in 2002 has hatched two chicks, the first migrating whooping cranes in eastern North America born in the wild in the last century. “We hope that they will lead the chicks along the same route,” said Joe Duff, chief executive officer and co-founder of Operation Migration. “That will really validate our work.” More than 10,000 whooping cranes once flew North American skies. But by the 1940s, habitat loss, hunting, and egg poaching had shrunk the population of the iconic birds to just 21.

U.S. and Canadian wildlife managers have since been working hard to boost whooping crane populations in what is often seen as a symbol of conservation efforts. The sole wild population of cranes, which migrates each year between Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada, and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, now has 214 birds. A smaller, reintroduced group lives in Florida year round. In the 1980s and 1990s efforts to create a new migratory population between Montana and New Mexico by introducing whooping cranes into migrating sandhill crane groups ran into trouble when whooping cranes tried to mate with the sandhills. “We had no way of reestablishing a migratory population until Operation Migration came along,” said Tom Stehn, coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Recovery Team. “It’s really a breakthrough.” If more than 125 birds can learn the route and start migrating on their own, the population could be self-sustaining, he says. The Operation Migration team started with 7 birds in 2001 and has now taught more than 60 birds the way to their wintering grounds.

National Geographic
October 24, 2006

Original web page at National Geographic