September 18, 2008

Adopting a New Flight Plan Whooping Crane Migration Route Shifted West into Safer Air Space

By LEN WELLS Courier & Press correspondent (618) 842-2159 or [email protected]

The route of the annual 1,250-mile migration of endangered whooping crane juveniles, led by an ultralight aircraft, has been shifted this fall to a more westerly route because of concerns about pilot and bird safety.

The route, from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to a closed area of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the west coast of Florida, will bring the birds through parts of the Tri-State.

It will take the birds the entire length of Illinois and across Western Kentucky, with overnight stops in Wayne County, Ill., and Union County, Ky.

"The route was shifted west because the easterly route was pretty scary," said Liz Condie, director of communications for Operation Migration, the group that works to ensure the birds' survival.

"Going over the Cumberland Ridge, there was no place to set down to retrieve a bird if there had been a problem," she said.

Officials hope, too, for better weather along the westerly route by picking up more favorable winds.

"For the safety of the birds, we

cannot divulge the exact location of each stopover other than down to the county level," Condie said. "At each stop, the birds will be housed overnight in portable pens to protect them from predators and to keep them far away from human contact."

While the stopover locations are kept secret, Operation Migration officials try to schedule gathering sites for local residents to catch a glimpse of the birds as they lift off to continue their southerly trek.

"A few days before the scheduled stopover, we try to alert the local residents of where they can congregate to watch a flyover," Condie said.

Because of fluctuating weather conditions, those interested in tracking the birds should check Operation Migration's Web site at for a more specific date and time.

The whooping crane chicks that take part in the reintroduction project are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. There, imprinting begins with the chicks still inside their eggs being exposed to ultralight aircraft sounds. Once hatched, the young chicks are reared in total isolation from humans.

To ensure the impressionable cranes remain wild, each handler and pilot wears a crane puppet on one arm that can dispense food, or by example, show the young chicks how to forage as would their real mother.

At 45 days of age, the young birds are transported by air, in individual containers, to the reintroduction area at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.

Because of differing age ranges, the birds usually are moved in three shipments and housed at three separate locations within a closed area of the refuge. Over the summer, the Operation Rescue crew of pilots, biologists, veterinarians and interns conditions the birds to follow the aircraft, which, along with its pilot, has been accepted as a surrogate parent.

Once the birds' dominance structure has been established and their endurance is sufficient, the migration begins, typically in October. Using four ultralight aircraft, Operation Migration's pilots, along with a ground crew consisting of biologists, handlers, veterinarians and drivers, cover up to 200 miles a day, depending on weather conditions.

This year's migration to Florida has been scheduled to begin Oct. 17. The shortest migration has taken 48 days to complete. The longest, 97 days, was recorded last year.

Because of destruction of habitat and overhunting, whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s when their population was reduced to only 15 birds. Since falling under the protection of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the only naturally occurring population of migrating whooping cranes has grown to more than 200 birds.

Named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, whooping cranes live and breed in wetland areas where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and aquatic plants.

An adult whooping crane stands 5 feet tall, with a white body, black wing tips and a red crest on its head.

Anyone encountering a whooping crane in the wild is asked to avoid approaching it, staying back at least 600 feet. In all cases, officials ask that people remain concealed and not speak loudly enough for the birds to hear them. Especially during the migration, residents are warned not to trespass on private property in an attempt to view the cranes.

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