For the first time in more than a century, whooping cranes will migrate across the skies of eastern North America this fall.
It all started back in November, 2000, when scientists successfully taught a new migration route to a flock of sandhill cranes with a 40-day record-breaking 1,250 mile journey in an ultralight aircraft from central Wisconsin to a wildlife preserve in Florida.
They knew that if the cranes could return to Wisconsin on their own in the spring, the major obstacle would clear in efforts to reintroduce rare whooping cranes to an eastern ancestral migration route, using the same method.
Finally in April, transmitter signals announced the sandhill cranes’ return to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, their nesting grounds inWisconsin. The young birds found their way back to where they had been fledged by human surrogate ‘parents’ in costume.
“Our hope was to show them the way south while maintaining their wildness,” explained Joe Duff, co-founder of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. “We are ecstatic.”
Now, in early July, biologists begin training a flock of 10 whooping cranes chicks. They should depart in mid-October and follow an ultralight aircraft flying over Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia on their way to Chassahowitzka NWR in Florida.
The species is the most endangered crane on earth, having recovered from a low of only 21 birds in 1941 to slightly over 400 today. Half that number, however, live in one wild migrating flock that annually moves between the Northwest Territories and Texas. Biologists have long worried about the entire flock being wiped out by hurricanes, contaminants, or disease.
To help ensure the species’ survival, more than 40 private landowners have offered their property to be used as overnight sites for the migrating birds.
The ultralight flight technique which brought the Sandhill Cranes to Florida is the same technique featured in the movie, Fly Away Home.