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WHOOPING CRANE MIGRATION AIDED BY AIRPLANE
The longest study using
ultralight aircraft to teach whooping cranes a new migration route ended
in Citrus County, Florida when the migration team of Operation Migration
Inc., a founding partner in the Whooping Crane
Eastern Partnership (WCEP), flew the last 25 miles of a 1,200 mile
journey, landing in a secluded location.
The cranes were moved
to their final winter home on December 5, when the costumed pilots led the
birds to a remote, isolated site on the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife
The WCEP group passed through Tennessee on their migration stopping in
Cumberland County near Crossville on November 9. The birds were kept in a
secluded pen while ground crews searched back into Kentucky for a lost
on November 10. One bird had separated from the flock before entering
Tennessee. The single whooping crane was located in a field in good
condition and was transported by ground to the pen in Cumberland County.
The crew again attempted to fly on November 11, but the flight was
canceled due to weather. On November 12, the migration continued with
plans to reach the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Hiwassee Wildlife
near Dayton. When the migration group attempted to cross Walden's Ridge,
high wind conditions would not allow the ultralight planes to safely cross
the mountain. The Operation Migration pilots were concerned some of the
whooping cranes may not be able to climb to a suitable elevation without
being injured or becoming separated and were required to make an
unscheduled landing in Bledsoe County near Dunlap. The crew located a
suitable pen site for the birds in a farmer's field for the night.
Just after first light on November 13, the migration continued with
the ultralights and whooping cranes successfully crossing the mountain
range with the goal of flying to a landing strip constructed for this
on the Hiwassee Refuge. The pilots soon discovered the landing strip was
covered with a thick morning fog. The decision was quickly made to land
on the historic Hiwassee Island and wait for the fog to burn off. After
about an hour, the fog had lifted and the migration made their last stop
Tennessee at a special pen built by TWRA and volunteers located near the
landing strip at the Hiwassee Refuge.
On November 14, the migration continued south and left Tennessee
on their way to the next stop in Gordon County, Georgia.
At approximately 7:43 a.m. on December 5, the whooping cranes
completed their last phase of the migration when they were successfully
transferred to their new winter home on the Chassahowitzka National
Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County, Florida.
The planes and cranes officially completed the migration after flying
over 1,224 miles over a 50-day period.
The whooping cranes will go through a soft release and a final health
check before being allowed to come and go at their new home. Biologists
from the International Crane Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
will monitor the birds throughout the winter.
In the spring, all eyes will again focus intently on the
"Chassahowtizka Seven," as one observer has dubbed them, in hopes the
birds will return north to their summer home at the Necedah National
Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin.
The arrival in Citrus County marks the end of a historic first step to
reintroduce a migratory flock of whooping cranes into eastern North
Over the next four years, additional whooping cranes will be
introduced to the southern migratory route from Necedah National Wildlife
in central Wisconsin to Florida's central west coast. Ultimately, it is
hoped the project will establish a self-sustaining flock of at least 25
breeding crane pairs.
In order to maintain their wild nature, the young whooping cranes,
raised by costumed handlers and in isolation, will continue to interact
only with costumed biologists and not be exposed to humans. A temporary
feeding station and night pen will be provided for a few days, after which
be allowed to come and go as they choose. Throughout the winter, the
cranes will have fresh water and feed provided as a supplement to their
daily natural diets. They will also be
monitored by biologists and tracked on their return route in the spring of
Whooping cranes are the most endangered cranes on earth, having
recovered from a low of only 21 birds in 1941 to slightly over 400 today.
Nearly half of that number, however, live in one wild migrating
flock that moves between Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest
Territories of Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the
U. S Fish and
Wildlife Service, on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and are subject to
hurricanes, contaminants, and disease. To help ensure the species'
survival, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team (WCEP member)
decided that a second wild flock of migrating whooping cranes should be
established in the eastern United States. In 1999, the Whooping Crane
Eastern Partnership was formed to bring together critical expertise from
federal and state governments and non-profit organizations.
Other partners include the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources,
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of
Environmental Protection, U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife
Research Center, the International Crane Foundation, the Natural Resources
Foundation of Wisconsin, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The introduction project also has the support of 20 eastern U.S.
states, including Tennessee, numerous public and private agencies and
organizations, as well as private landowners throughout the seven-state
For updates on the cranes throughout the winter and on their return
next spring, please visit the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership web site