Ultralight-led bird migration
The Whooping Crane is the most famous endangered bird in North America. In part because it is large, distinctive, and photogenic and partly because, since 1967, Canadians and Americans have cooperated in a successful recovery program to safeguard it from extinction.Each fall, an Operation Migration team leads a flock of Whooping Cranes from Wisconsin to Florida. Human pilots fly in ultralight aircraft while wearing baggy white clothing and remaining quiet to prevent the cranes from becoming domesticated.
It is believed that approximately 1,400 whooping cranes existed in 1860. Their population declined because of hunting and habitat loss until 1941 when the last migrating flock dwindled to an all-time low of 15 birds. The wild flock has slowly increased to over 180 in late 1999. This flock winters in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf coast of Texas. In spring, they migrate north, nesting in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the border of Alberta and Northwest Territories in Canada. This flock of whooping cranes is the only naturally occurring wild population in the world. Scientists have long recognized the risk of having all of the wild whooping cranes using one wintering and breeding location. With all the wild birds concentrated in one small area, the population could be wiped out by disease, bad weather, or human impacts. Whooping crane survival depends on additional, separated populations.
International Whooping Crane Recovery Team
The Whooping Crane Recovery Team (WCRT) is the governing body charged with responsibility of the species. Consisting of ten members: five Americans and five Canadians the team of ornithologists and biologists provide policy recommendations to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service. Primarily, the team plans actions to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo natural flock and to establish two additional flocks in efforts to safeguard the whooping crane from possible extinction.
The team's efforts to establish a non-migratory Whooping crane flock began in Florida in 1993, using cranes hatched in captivity. In September, 1999, after searching for the best possible location to establish a second migratory flock, the team recommended that the flock be taught a migration route with central Wisconsin as the northern terminus and the west coast of Florida as the new wintering location. The WCRT sanctioned Operation Migration's ultralight-led migration technique as the main reintroduction method.
This year's adventure began on Oct. 13. You'll find updates about the four pilots' and birds' progress -- or lack thereof -- in the field journal. New information is posted there as soon and often as possible. The entries include photos and lots of details.
If you want to support Operation Migration, visit its membership page.
Photos courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service