For the Birds Radio Program: Wisconsin Whooping Cranes

Original Air Date: Aug. 25, 2003

Laura keeps her eyes skyward when driving between Tomah and Necedah, in hopes of spotting a Whooping Crane. (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


This past weekend I drove my son Tommy and three of his friends down to southeastern Wisconsin so they could see a Radiohead concert. The ride down was filled with anticipation for the boys and for me, too, though I wasn’t going to the concert. From the moment we left Peabody Street, I was filled with hopes that somewhere along I-94, between Tomah and Necedah, I might spot one of the Whooping Cranes that have been part of the Whooping Crane Introduction Project, feeding or roosting in one of the wetlands near the highway.

There are now three groups of cranes in the Necedah area. Birds hatched in 2002 followed an Ultralight airplane from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin down to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida last autumn, then made the return flight this spring entirely on their own. Cranes hatched in 2001 followed the ultralight their first autumn, and made the return journeys last spring and fall and then again this spring entirely on their own. These two groups total 21 cranes, and most of them have been summering near where they were originally released. Three unattached females had wandered west to South Dakota for a while, but concerns about them getting mixed with Sandhill Crane flocks and perhaps even being shot during hunting season prompted researchers to capture them and return them to Wisconsin. And the radio transmitter on one of the birds failed, and its whereabouts are unknown. But at least 20 of these birds are doing fine, and could be anywhere in that wetland and agricultural area. On some days, individuals have been spotted from I-94, and hope springs eternal in this birder’s soul.

Unfortunately, Whooping Cranes don’t sign contracts the way concert bands do, so the boys had a much higher probability of seeing what they set out to see than I did. Sure enough, all five members of the Radiohead flock showed up, but not a single one of the 20 cranes was sighted. It didn’t disappoint me—there’s a magic in knowing that these cranes are out there somewhere, and even a sense of relief that they aren’t spending too much of their lives near the freeway.

This year another 16 cranes brought to Necedah from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center are practicing following the Ultralight. They take their practice flights early in the morning, and don’t fly over the interstate, so there was no hope of actually seeing them as I drove along. Sometime in October, they’ll take off for Florida behind the little yellow plane, and then lucky people in the right place looking up at the right time will actually see this amazing flight. The wild natural beauty of cranes being helped by human beings using technology is something of a miracle in itself. In a few years, the Ultralight project will end, but by then with luck the cranes will be reproducing in Wisconsin as they did two centuries ago, and maintaining their new flock entirely on their own. And perhaps one day my son Tommy’s children, while heading to a rock concert, will see Whooping Cranes in the sky and no one will think it’s a big deal because by then Whooping Cranes will be common and entirely wild, the radio transmitters they carry now as passé and outdated as Radiohead will be. And we’ll always try to remember the miracle it is when something so extraordinary can be taken for granted.