Grus Americana Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
Whooping cranes stand almost 5 ft. tall, and have a wingspan of 6-7 ft. (2 meters). Adult whooping cranes have snow-white plumage with black wing tips and a red patch on the face that extends from the forehead to the cheek. Whooping cranes mate for life.
“Whoopers” once wintered in Florida, but hunting and habitat loss eliminated the Florida population by the 1920’s. By the 1940’s the entire species was on the verge of extinction, with only 21 birds surviving in the wild.
Like other migratory birds, whooping cranes learn their migration routes by following older birds – usually their parents. But when the migratory flock dwindles and disappears, as happened with the eastern whooping crane population, the knowledge is lost.
Efforts to establish a migratory population of whooping cranes began during the summer of 2000 when a coalition of government, non-profit and private organizations joined to form the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). 'Operation Migration', a non-profit charitable organization works within this partnership.
The goal was to establish a new, migratory flock of whooping cranes that would re-establish the migration route between Wisconsin and Florida. Whooping crane chicks are taught to follow an ultralight aircraft. In the fall, young cranes follow the ultralight from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife refuge in Florida – a journey of 1,600 miles (2,575 km). The first 6 birds arrived at Crystal River in Florida on December 3rd 2001, and as of spring 2007, 63 birds have been taught the migration route.
Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
Spring of 2007 saw a huge setback for Operation Migration. In early February, a massive storm system roared through central Florida spawning tornadoes that killed 20 people. The storms also killed 17 of the 18 young cranes that had followed the ultralight aircrafts south in the fall of 2006.
However, life goes on. In March 2007 the wild adult whooping cranes began their migration back to Wisconsin, and the International Crane Foundation anticipates training another batch of chicks for the next ultralight-led migration in the fall of 2007.
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