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Wed, Dec 15, 2004

Whooping Cranes and Ultralights Reach Florida

They Did It Again!

Thirteen endangered whooping cranes and their surrogate parents—three ultralight aircraft—reached Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge shortly after 9 a.m. Eastern today after a 64-day, 1,200-mile trek over seven states.

The young cranes made a rare public appearance, flying over a welcoming crowd of supporters at the Crystal River Mall in Crystal River, just prior to landing at a special four-acre site at Chassahowitzka. Despite suffering damage from some of the four hurricanes that hit Florida this year, the site was ready for the birds' arrival.

"Though hurricanes damaged more than 90 percent of the fencing around the pen, staff, refuge volunteers and volunteers from other agencies and refuges all came together to repair the damage,” said Chassahowitzka NWR Manager Jim Kraus. "Everyone did a stellar job and we thank them for their contribution to this reintroduction effort."

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private organizations, is conducting this ultralight-led reintroduction project in an effort to return this highly imperiled species to its historic range in eastern North America.

The cranes left Necedah, WI, on Oct. 10, following ultralight aircraft flown by Operation Migration, Inc., pilots. International Crane Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologists will monitor their winter behavior and track them on their anticipated spring migration north in 2005.

A day before reaching Chassahowitzka NWR, one of the young birds of the Class of 2004, Number 6, died. On Dec. 10, migration team members discovered her lethargic in her traveling pen and attempted to give her fluids at the recommendation of veterinarians.

Though she seemed to respond to the fluids, 6-04 appeared in need of medical attention, and crewmembers carefully hooded her and drove her to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, where doctors examined her. The bird's white blood cell count extremely high and she showed evidence of parasitic and bacterial infections. To prevent any further stress, veterinarians euthanized number 6-04 on Dec. 11.

These birds are the fourth generation of whooping cranes to make this unique assisted migration from Wisconsin to Florida. Cranes from the ultralight-led migration classes of 2001, 2002 and 2003 are making or have completed their own unassisted southward migrations, representing another milestone in this historic reintroduction effort.

In 2001, project partner Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight surrogates south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR on Florida’s Gulf Coast. In 2002, WCEP biologists and pilots conditioned and guided a second group of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. In the fall of 2003, WCEP conducted its third ultralight-led migration. With the success of this fall’s migration, there are now 48 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.

WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 600 feet; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 600 feet or, if on a public road, within 300 feet. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view whooping cranes.

The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the US Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD. There, the young cranes are introduced to ultralight aircraft and raised in isolation from humans. To ensure the impressionable cranes remain wild, project biologists and pilots adhere to a strict no-talking rule, broadcast recorded crane calls and wear costumes designed to mask the human form whenever they are around the cranes.

New classes of cranes are transported to Necedah NWR each June to begin a summer of conditioning behind the ultralights to prepare them for their fall migration. Pilots lead the birds on gradually longer training flights at the refuge throughout the summer until the young cranes are deemed ready to follow the aircraft along the migration route.

Graduated classes of whoopers spend much of their time during the summer on or near the Necedah and Horicon national wildlife refuges, both of which are in central Wisconsin. They also use state and private lands. It is not unusual for yearling female cranes to wander, especially if they are not associating with any male flockmates, which typically select the future breeding territory.

Project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the US Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor southbound cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make along the way. ICF and FWS biologists actively track the cranes as they make their way north, and continue to monitor the birds, along with Wisconsin DNR biologists, while the whooping cranes are in their summer locations.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 275 birds in the wild. Aside from the 35 Wisconsin-Florida birds, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 100 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.

Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and aquatic plants. They are distinctive animals, standing five feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members include the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.

Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project’s estimated $1.8 million budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.

FMI: www.bringbackthecranes.org

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