For the Birds Radio Program: Whooping Cranes Take Off!

Original Air Date: Oct. 17, 2003 (estimated date)

Fifteen Whooping Cranes following an Ultralight aircraft began a journey yesterday that will take them from Wisconsin to Florida.

Audio missing


Whooping Cranes

Last week, on October 8, 15 Whooping Cranes were scheduled to take off behind an Ultralight airplane to being their migration between the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The cranes had been flying good distances for weeks and were way ahead of schedule in their growth and behavior. The birds would have been ready for the flight a week or more earlier, but the humans putting together the migration had to make sure they had large, secret stopping points along the entire 1200 mile route, and the team flying with or driving below the birds had to tie up the loose ends in their personal lives before starting this adventure, which takes about 2 months from start to finish. October 8 was set as the date for takeoff.

The birds were ready, and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership human team was ready. Unfortunately, no one informed Mother Nature, and she sent fog or wind to Necedah every single morning for a week. For the first seven mornings, conditions didn’t even allow the birds to take a practice flight, much less allow them to go 20-30 miles in one direction without bucking head winds or crosswinds. This week on Wednesday the winds died down to about 7 miles per hour, crossing from the west, and at least the birds got to stretch their wings for the first time in a week. And yesterday morning at 7:44 am, finally, the birds and planes took off in earnest.

This year’s Whooping Crane flock has 16 birds. One fractured her leg a few weeks ago, and isn’t quite ready for the flight, though she is recovering nicely. Every day she will be transported by truck to the site where the other birds are resting, and it’s expected that in a few days she, too, will be allowed to migrate with them. So Thursday morning, 15 birds took off on their very first flight leading away from the only home they ever knew. Four of the birds got confused or resisted the idea of leaving home, and quickly turned around and went back home to their pens. Two of the remaining 11 got weary and dropped down 2 miles before the landing site in southern Juneau county. But 9 birds flew the entire 23 mile distance—not nearly as far a stretch as they’ll be able to go at the end of the migration, as their wings get stronger, but a pretty far distance for such a large bird to flap.

The 6 birds that dropped down were transported to join the others yesterday. The team can fairly easily keep track of lost birds because each crane wears a radio transmitter on its leg. When the birds take off today, or as soon as the weather next allows, they’re expected to stick together better because now they’re away from home, confused strangers in a strange land, and based on past years of this historical experiment will stick together much more tightly and stay close to the ultralight in such unfamiliar territory.

Imagine raking your leaves and looking up in the sky to see 15 or 16 Whooping Cranes flying in formation behind a tiny bright yellow Ultralight airplane. This has to be both a thrilling sight and a bizarre one. The cranes are working their way south through Wisconsin and Illinois, not veering east at all until they’ve cleared the Chicago area. If any birds dropped down in such an urban setting, they’d be in trouble before the people rescued them. And if a driver on the Dan Ryan Expressway happened to look up as cranes following an ultralight passed over, such an unexpected sight could well lead to an accident. And you never know just how sad the birds would be flying over Wrigley Field. So it’s far safer to add 50 or 60 miles to the journey than to risk flying over the Windy City. That means it will be several days before the cranes cut east to Indiana. Little by little they’ll inch their way to Florida, adding distance to their daily flights as they grow stronger and more experienced, and in six weeks or so they’ll arrive on their wintering grounds. Come spring, it will only take five days or so to make the return journey, as they instinctively choose days with good thermals so they can cover a lot more ground with a lot less effort. These experienced birds will return south next fall on their own power, too. By then the eastern migratory flock of cranes will have over 35 adolescent birds. And for the following two falls, additional groups of baby cranes will be taught to migrate with an ultralight. By the end of this 5-year test, there should be at least 60 birds in the flock, all migrating both ways on their own, and some will finally be starting to pair off and reproduce. With luck soon Whooping Cranes will be nesting in their historic range in the United States as well as where the natural flock is now in Canada. And the world will be richer because we humans have restored one small, beautiful part of what we’ve taken away.