For the Birds Radio Program: Whooping Crane

Original Air Date: Dec. 2, 2003

The Ultralight Whooping Cranes are closing in on Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Date confirmed

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Whooping Crane migration

A year ago on November 30, and two years ago on December 3, a flock of young Whooping Cranes following an Ultralight airplane dropped down on the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, completing their very first migration. This year’s birds fell way behind that schedule, spending the night of November 30 in northernmost Georgia. They’d reached that same stop on November 23 last year, and in 2001 they reached it on November 14. They’ve had so much rain and wind this fall that even though the birds were ready to leave Wisconsin over a week earlier than other years, they’ve been grounded a great many more days this year than the last two.

But yesterday, December 1, both the cranes and the pilots were ready to make up for lost time, and they soared right over three stops, covering a full 200 miles in one day, by far a record-breaking flight—the longest migration flight they’ve made before this was little more than half of that, when last year they flew 107 miles in one day. This year’s record breaking flight kept the birds up in the air for 3 hours and 4 minutes, almost an hour longer than the previous record. And better yet, every one of the 16 cranes made the entire flight, and some were still feeling peppy enough at the end to fly up and join some circling Turkey Vultures riding a thermal.

So as of December 1, the cranes have flown a total of 954 miles. They still have 248 miles to go on their 1200-mile journey. But the weather forecast looks good, and the cranes may well cross the Florida border today, December 2. With luck and good weather, they’ll make it to Chassahowitzka this week.

Meanwhile, many of the cranes that followed the plane in the past two years are already at the wildlife refuge. The first three crossed into Florida on November 15, and as of December 1, 11 have arrived at Chassahowitzka and another 5 are in different sites in Florida where they wintered last year. The pokiest crane, a female hatched last year, finally left Illinois on November 28, migrating with a flock of Sandhill Cranes, and a couple are still in Tennessee.

All in all, this Whooping Crane introduction program appears to be a rousing success. Meanwhile, we’re waiting impatiently to hear what biologist Tom Stehn will find when he flies over Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas this week to make his annual Whooping Crane wintering census there. Based on population counts this summer up in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada, it looked like the natural Whooping Crane population that winters in Texas might reach 200 for the first time since the 1800s. That may not happen now that at least one bird was shot by a Texas poacher, but the flock may well set a modern record.

Whooping Cranes are extraordinary birds—magnificent to look at and hear, carrying something of the prehistoric world in their bearing. For humans to figure out a way to save them with the most modern technological advancements in small aircraft, digital recording, and satellite transmitters and receivers is an incongruous yet wonderful accomplishment. The people working so hard to bring cranes back will, with any luck, be out of their jobs in a few years when the cranes are reproducing and teaching their own young to migrate. But meanwhile we’re lucky to live on a planet where people can learn from their mistakes and work hard to right at least some past wrongs.