For the Birds Radio Program: Whooping Crane Festival 2007

Original Air Date: Sept. 18, 2007

The annual Whooping Crane Festival at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is over, but there’s plenty still to see.

Duration: 4′36″


This past weekend I went down to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, near Tomah, Wisconsin, to attend this year’s annual Whooping Crane Festival. Every fall beginning in 2001, a group of baby Whooping Cranes hatched in captivity has learned to be wild migratory birds. Without real Whooping Crane parents, these babies imprint on a whooping crane puppet attached to the arm of a human being, while every trace of the person is hidden under a billowing white cloak. These costumed people teach the baby cranes their migration route to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida by piloting Ultralight airplanes that the cranes have learned to follow. Like natural baby cranes, these birds learn the route from their adoptive parents, but then return north the following spring entirely on their own, and after that are fully independent.

The project to reintroduce breeding Whooping Cranes to Wisconsin is a huge success if we measure it by the fact that last year, one pair of birds that had hatched early in the decade successfully hatched two babies. One baby was killed by a predator, but the other survived and flew to Florida last fall with its parents. This spring that baby returned to Wisconsin. That adult pair and two other young pairs tried to nest at Necedah this summer, but none of the birds succeeded thanks to predators and the drought—this has been a tough year for all kinds of birds in Wisconsin. Loons also had horrible nest success. But the fact that three pairs from this program have figured out how to nest and at least last year’s birds figured out how to successfully raise a chick is extremely hopeful news.

A few hundred people show up every year at the festival, but frankly I’m surprised there aren’t thousands. There are always several excellent speakers talking about a range of topics, from loons to bears. First thing in the morning people who go to the observation tower at the refuge have a chance to see the young birds practicing flying with the Ultralight. Of course the flights are extremely weather-dependent. This year the festival morning was still, with clear skies and heavy frost—perfect flying conditions. The birds were in the air for a good 30 minutes, and were doing so well that the pilots brought them quite close to the observation tower—a truly thrilling sight. And at noon, when the number of festival goers was at its peak, an adult Whooping Crane flew over the festival grounds and circled for several minutes, thrilling just about all the people attending. These adult cranes will head south soon, and the babies are expected to leave on October 10 or the first fine day after that. Wind or rain make the flight impossible, so the cranes’ progress will be very weather dependent. Last year a horrible storm in Florida killed all the 2006 babies, a devastating setback for the program as well as a tragic loss of these precious birds. But overall the program’s success and the hope of restoring a magnificent bird to a major part of its historical range form a sound basis for continuing the project for a few more years, when with luck the little population will become self-sustaining. I put photos of this weekend’s flight and the crane festival on my blog, at And I also posted some photos of a beautiful pair of Whoopers living in a natural setting at the International Crane Foundation. You can keep track of the Operation Migration flight of the Whoopers at the Journey North website—that’s linked to on my blog and my Whooping Crane photo gallery. There’s so much beauty in the world. If you have a chance to visit Necedah one still morning before October 10, you’ll be glad you did.