Whooping Cranes, Ultralight Planes Take Flight on Annual Migration

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
October 5, 2006

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.

Pilots 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. (See pictures and get more information about the whooping crane migration.)

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."

Symbol of Conservation

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.

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