Ten of the most endangered birds in North America are making their first migration now.
Whooping cranes are so rare that there are less than 600 of them on earth: 162 are in captivity, 44 are non-migratory and approximately 278 nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada and migrate to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Texas. The rest spend the summer in Wisconsin and migrate to Florida on a route they learned from ultralite aircraft.
Back in 1941 whooping cranes nearly went extinct. In the wild their population had dwindled to only 15 migratory birds (21 total) so scientists and crane lovers began a captive breeding program to bring them back. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) works to reintroduce them to their eastern range.
Like many animals, whooping cranes imprint on the creature that raises them from babyhood. In the wild that would be their parents, but in a captive breeding program where adult birds are unavailable humans must dress in crane costumes and use mute gestures so the young birds learn to be cranes.
Thankfully the program increased the eastern whooping crane population but the new birds were non-migratory. Since cranes learn to migrate from their parents who would teach them? Enter the ultralite.
Ultralite aircraft are like kites with motors, just a little larger than the humans who fly them. The first ever whooper-ultralite migration occurred in Idaho in 1997. Before leading endangered eastern whoopers, pilots Bill Lishman and Joe Duff practiced by leading young Canada geese and sandhill cranes. In 2001 Operation Migration they led the first group of young whoopers from Necedah NWR, Wisconsin to Chassahowitza NWR, Florida.
The young cranes memorize the route on their way south and fly back to Wisconsin on their own in the spring. By now there are adult cranes who know the route so WCEP has a Direct Autumn Release project which releases some of each year's young with the Wisconsin adults so they learn to migrate by following them.
The video above from the mid-2000's tells the whoopers' migration story. Shortly after this video was made, 17 of the 18 whoopers from the 2006 fall migration were killed by violent storms that hit the wildlife refuge one night in February 2007. The 18th died three months later. Fortunately this was the only tragedy of its kind but it underscores how vulnerable small populations can be.
This year's cohort of 10 young cranes began their journey on October 9 at White River Marsh Wildlife Area, Wisconsin and are headed for St. Marks National Wildlife Reserve, Florida. So far they've made little progress because strong gusty winds have kept them grounded for days. This week they were still at stopover #1!
Learn more at Journey North's Whooper page.
(video from Assignment Earth via YouTube)