For the Birds Radio Program: Whooping Crane Update

Original Air Date: Oct. 11, 2002

Operation Migration is hoping to take off today with this year’s group of cranes headed from Wisconsin to Florida. (Verified Date)

Duration: 4′58″


On October 10, seventeen Whooping Cranes were supposed to take off in flight from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and follow an ultralight aircraft on the first leg of a journey all the way down to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. But it was rainy and windy, so the cranes missed their official start. They’ll try again today, October 11, and every morning until they get the dry, fairly calm conditions they need.

Last year this journey was scheduled to start on October 13, but didn’t actually take off until the 17th. Last year only 7 cranes started out, and two were lost en route. This year’s much larger flock requires extra aircraft.

Ultralight migration is entirely different from natural migration for Whooping Cranes. In nature they can cover hundreds of miles in a single day. This spring when the five cranes returned to Wisconsin on their own, it took them only 11 days, compared to the 48 days it took to fly south behind the ultralight.

Cranes naturally choose days with good thermal development, fly at very high altitudes, sometimes completely out of our sight range, and flap very little. Behind an ultralight, they can fly with little wind or a tail wind only, and thermals don’t matter; they fly much lower, and they must flap almost continuously. The hard work involved means they can cover only 60 miles or less in a day.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team has to plot out the route carefully, because these cranes are intended to be fully wild. They’ve developed crane puppets that fed the cranes when they were chicks, equipped with digital sound players that play a wide variety of Whooping Crane vocalizations recorded in the wild and played back in the correct situations. They can play a Whooping Crane alarm cry when a hawk flies overhead, a beckoning call at feeding time, and a flight call when it’s time to take off.

This is a very expensive program, but a sound one. Right now the only entirely wild and natural Whooping Cranes in the world all nest in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, and all winter in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The rivers feeding Aransas are providing the burgeoning Texas human population with ever increasing amounts of water for irrigation, swimming pools, maintaining green lawns, and of course drinking water supplies, and so less and less water is actually reaching the Aransas estuary. During the winter, Whooping Cranes require a large supply of blue crabs in order to get their bodies in prime breeding condition. The blue crabs, an estuary species, require brackish water, but as the salinity increases, the blue crabs decrease. In years when the rivers are low, the estuary grows more salty and the cranes don’t get their needed allotment of blue crabs. And the summers following those bad wintering seasons, they just don’t produce many young. And a single catastrophic storm or oil spill could wipe out the entire population.

In past years, a non-migratory Whooping Crane population was established in central Florida. This handful of cranes is having a hard time getting established. This year marks the first successful nesting-one pair actually fledged a chick. But six other nesting attempts failed due to record drought conditions and a variety of other problems. A bald eagle snatched the sibling of the successful crane. Later when it came down to take the survivor, the parents attacked and injured the eagle. New cranes introduced to bolster this population suffered all kinds of problems, one dying from bee stings, another from lightning, and another from being struck by a golf ball. Wisconsin is a far better place for breeding cranes, so this new ultralight project is providing great hope.

Journey North, the free, non-profit educational website I write for, is tracking the cranes’ travels. You can find a link to see what’s happening each day on my website–­ .